This past Sunday, Cuba went to the polls to elect 612 delegates to the country’s National Assembly as well as representatives to regional assemblies. Discussing elections in Cuba is bizarre: there are no legal political parties on the island, other than the ruling Communist Party, which wrenches the word out of any meaningful context. Still, one noteworthy event occurred: Fidel Castro made his first public appearancein months to vote.The iconic ex-leader declaredthat “the people are truly revolutionary, they have really sacrificed. We don’t have to prove it, history will.”
Maybe so. And it’s true that the recent elections come against the backdrop of a series of political reforms Raul Castro has carried out, including clawbacks of government powers over the economy –with more than 400,000 Cubans now licensed to create their own small businesses, an attempt to improve the island’s economy and create a new middle class. Another reform that seized public attention was the government’s relaxation of itsexit visa requirements. (Among the individuals that have successfully left the island has beenEliécer Avila, a prominent Cuban dissident leader.)
But all is not well with economic and political liberty on the Caribbean island. TheComisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional(Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, or CCDHRN), recently reported that 364 individuals were detained for political motives (i.e. committing acts of dissidence) in January alone. And prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez received a visa to travel to Brazil in January under the relaxed requirements – but the government once again denied her request to temporarily leave the country. “It is occasion number 19 on which they have violated my right to enter and leave the country,”she wrote.
Long gone are the days of analysts speculating whether there could be some kind of social upheaval that would remove the Castro brothers and their allies from power by force. Now, the world seems to be waiting for a (one hopes) non-violent passing of the torch from the Castros (both of whom are of advanced age, with Raul Castro at 81 years old and Fidel at 86). Under other circumstances, elections — even relatively circumscribed ones – can be at least a means to groom a new political class. Historically this has not been the case in the Caribbean state. In 2011, a promising shakeup of Raul Castro’s cabinet only brought more of the “old guard”to positions of power rather than new faces. And – unsurprisingly – this latest round proved no different. TheCuban electoral commissionreported that the results were satisfactory, with over seven million eligible voters going to the polls (86% of all of the island’s eligible voters).Media outletsreported that all 612 candidates for the National Assembly (and over 1,200 for regional legislatures) were elected.
Not that this outcome was ever much in doubt: remember, no legal parties exist that could field an alternative set of candidates. (Sanchez, with no small degree of sarcasm, tweeted: “#Cuba WHAT A SURPRISE!Out of 612 candidates to vote for in this “elections”, 612 were ratified.”) Critics argue, too, that whoever is elected to the National Assembly is largely inconsequential: only a handful of individuals at the top of the Cuban leadership continue to control key governmental and military posts.
So here we have an election without real parties or alternative candidates, which will grant no power to those who “win”, all taking place under a regime that regards a single blogger as so threatening as to be need to be prevented from leaving the country. Fidel Castro may praise the Cuban people’s revolutionary fervor – but the government he led for decades and which still bears his imprint is looking decidedly reactionary.