Posts Tagged ‘cuban model’

A Critical Analysis of Cuba & Its Neighbors

July 16, 2013


The legitimacy of democracy as a political system has earned it universal prominence. So much so that scholar Katherine Isbester asserts that despite remaining a one-party autocratic state, ‘the Cuban government claims that its government is democratic.’ But is this classification of Cuba misleading? Is there any credence of Cuba actually being a democratic state? If so, does our Western-centric view of democracy distort our conceptions of it, simplifying a complex structure to merely a multi-party system that takes on a representative form?

In his book, Cuba and its Neighbors, Arnold August argues that the Cuban model is unique because it facilitates greater popular involvement in the political process. Participation at the grassroots level transcends competitive multi-party elections since participatory mechanisms provide citizens with a horizontal link to the state.

With the advent of Hugo Chávez and the rise of leftist governments in Latin America, participatory democracy (PD) – support for bottom-up democratization commanded by popularly mobilized revolutionary movements – has gained regional currency.

August proclaims that PD is the most effective way to assure democracy and the Latin American left (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador) exemplify participation as a key ingredient in their political systems, thus deepening democracy by shifting power away from a bureaucratic state and placing it in the hands of the people.

However, there are discrepancies with the theory of PD since there is a dichotomy between the promise and reality. ‘Participatory processes that go beyond universal voting are highly susceptible to active minorities.’ Many individuals simply do not have the resources or the capacity to be engaged participants, therefore they ‘are frequently left out and unattended to.’ More importantly, PD ‘rarely becomes widespread without state sponsorship,’ threatening the autonomy of civil society and grassroots organizations that do not support the state. Thus state-sponsored PD can be, paradoxically, exclusionary as it is inclusive.

August’s thesis is additionally based on a one-dimensional conceptual assumption that “the people” is a homogenous, unified group. This is an enormous imaginative leap considering that individuals belong to a multitude of communities that are ‘sometimes pulling in different directions.’ People differ in political orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, gender and race. Therefore, August’s conception of “the people” is in dramatic contrast to reality.

For example, August proclaims that ‘the Venezuelan Constitution was the first in its history approved by the people’ (page 46, emphasis added). To uphold this statement, the following must be true: (i) there was active engagement and consultation with “the people” and (ii) there was a high turnout rate from eligible voters. While there was some grassroots involvement, the data affirms that the turnout rate for the Constitutional Referendum of December 1999 was only 44.4 percent. This effectively gave the 1999 Constitution a “mandate” of approximately 30 percent of its registered voters.

The declaration that the Constitution was indeed “approved by the people” is rather a precarious one bearing in mind August’s rightful criticism of low voter turnout rates in American elections and his disparagement of Obama’s “mandate” of 28.5 percent.

A central element in the political orientation of August is his revulsion for extreme individualism and unlimited accumulation of private property. He is masterful at articulating these concerns by accurately discerning that American democracy promotion is based on these principles. Therefore, the Latin American left has the right to develop democracy on their own accord.

August goes into arduous length detailing the dynamism of the electoral process in Cuba and concludes that the island is indeed a robust democratic state, dismissing multi-party elections as a ruse that detracts the country from constructing an authentic, socialist state.

The author’s fidelity to the Latin American left’s commitment to socialism and anti-imperialism barricades him from significantly denouncing any inherent democratic deficits by simply brushing it off as Western prejudice. And this is where the book disappoints.

August declares that Cuba guarantees freedom of the press as long as it’s framed within socialist objectives, but such proclamations are the antithesis of freedom since it requires all media to submit to the logic of the state.

Only a dedicated anti-Cuban ideologue would deny that Cuba has a strong grassroots electoral process, but August is a bit deficient when it comes to politics beyond the ground level. There’s less inquiry outside of the technical procedures concerning the election of the President, Vice-President, Secretary and the Council of State. There’s no examination of power dynamics, on whether or not these processes are fully transparent or rubber stamped.

Furthermore, August is dismissive of leftist dissidents who disapprove of the Castros and those who accuse them of authoritarianism. He appears to imply that Fidel and Raul have the historic right to permanently lead the revolution. The Cuban Revolution taking any form without them at the helm is inauthentic. Therefore dissenters do not add to the discourse, they simply desire regime change. Socialist credentials are thereby authenticated only if Cubans profess to be Fidelistas, as if the construction of socialism cannot be maintained independently of the Castros.

In regards to Venezuela, there’s no mention of Chávez’s knack for undermining electoral results when opposition deputies win, i.e. stripping the powers and funding from the Mayor of Caracas in 2008 and in Petare when he rewrote congressional rules in 2010. There’s no mention of the Tascón List, media intimidation, self-censorship and the co-optation of civil society.

It is difficult to independently verify the size of the opposition in Cuba. According to August, it is no more than three to four percent of participants. However, the opposition in Venezuela is much more numerous and active.

In the 2012 presidential elections, more than 6.5 million people – about 44.3 percent of voters – casted their ballot for Henrique Capriles. In April of 2013, following the death of President Chávez, over 7.3 million (49.1 percent) again voted for Capriles. Turnouts in both elections were about 80 percent.

It is curious to see how 44 to 49 percent of Venezuelans fit into August’s narrative of “the people.” Are they part of the democratization process? Do they deserve to have petrodollars funneled into their communities to develop grassroots organizations? Or are they simply individuals who are misinformed and selfish who want their country to be sold and destroyed by voting for “the White House candidate”? Are they traitors?

(900,000 Chávez supporters voted for Capriles and Maduro has since then identified them, a violation of Article 63 of the Constitution)

Lastly, August interestingly refuses to provide a working definition of democracy professing that a ready-made criterion is static. Democracy is not a mechanical function, it is always in motion. Countries (read U.S.) who want to impose a set of rules for democracy (multi-party system, separation of powers, rule of law) are simply co-opting social struggles by obliging them to partake in electoral politics, fragmenting them into political parties that compete with each other, disrupting social goals by capturing it in a system that makes change sluggish or nearly unfeasible.

Correspondingly, I agree with August’s insistence of autonomous development. But I disagree with his stringent criteria: democratization can only be realized, within the Latin American context, if it is based on extreme collectivism and socialism (this does not suggest that I’m an advocate of the inverse). While he does bestow some scrutiny for Ecuador due to the government’s lack of consultation with the grassroots and the indigenous, he is still an avid supporter of President Rafael Correa due to his adherence to the aforementioned principles. Still, August offers no mechanisms for the protection of minorities. Which begs the question: should there be a minimum criterion for democracy?

Cuba and its neighbors (U.S., Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador) are like any other state that proudly identifies itself as democratic: they contain elements of democracy (or PD) while simultaneously experiencing serious democratic deficits. Remarkably, four out of the five countries examined by August are self-proclaimed revolutions. The American and Cuban revolutions prevailed through armed struggle. The Bolivarian Revolution (Venezuela) and the Citizen’s Revolution (Ecuador) were achieved through the ballot box. And they all have one thing in common: the desire for permanence.

taken from:

arnold august---(Arnold August)

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