Posts Tagged ‘participatory democracy’

Reseña del libro de Arnold August, Cuba y sus vecinos: democracia en movimiento

January 23, 2014

Reseña en español del libro de Arnold August, Cuba y sus vecinos: democracia en movimiento, publicada en el International Journal of Cuban Studies (IJCS) 5.2 Summer 2013 (Revista Internacional de Estudios Cubanos, número 5.2 verano 2013)

Reseña de David Grantham*

‘Es mi intención en este libro –escribe el autor Arnold August– proporcionar a los lectores algunas herramientas para seguir el desenvolvimiento de la situación, de manera autónoma, con una mirada no empañada por nociones preconcebidas’ (p. 232)[1]. Para August, el desenvolvimiento de la situación representa una Revolución cubana rejuvenecida y las nociones preconcebidas conllevan la supuesta superioridad de la democracia de los EEUU, la cual ha llegado a desgastar a sus ciudadanos hasta el punto de incapacitarles para encontrar versiones alternativas de democracia. August pretende retirar esas anteojeras a través de un análisis comparativo y sistémico de la acción política realizada en Cuba y en otros países vecinos. Aún cuando la comparación de estrategias de gobierno no es una idea innovadora, donde August se distingue es en su reinvención de la práctica de la democracia. Para ello, redefine la acción política cubana como una forma de democracia. Parte ciencia política, parte historia, Democracia en movimiento es un acto inaugural que revela en forma íntima el proceso político de Cuba destinado a explorar la ‘aproximación a la democracia’ (p. xiii) de la nación isleña.

August deja bien claro la necesidad de ‘definición y debate’ respecto del sistema político de Cuba y la idea de la participación (p. xv). Primero, si la participación pública es una condición fundamental para la democracia, los hechos observados plantean que Cuba representa otra forma de democracia. Los datos históricos, complementados con la información sobre las características de los procedimientos gubernamentales y las entrevistas personales proporcionados por August, todos apuntan al sorprendente legado cubano en materia de participación pública, y, por consiguiente, de democracia. Efectivamente, muchos lectores se quedarán perplejos, si no bien estupefactos por el alcance de la democracia en Cuba y en algunos de los países que le rodean. August ‘acompaña al lector a través de las experiencias de distintos países con el propósito de extrapolar y definir determinados rasgos de la democracia participativa’ (p. 4).

La idea central de la publicación gira en torno a la comparación entre el ‘proceso participativo’ cubano y el estadounidense –la democracia asociada a la propiedad privada por sobre la colectiva (p. 12). August deduce que el contraste entre los principios económicos y sociales explica la distinción entre el modelo cubano sustentado por ‘valores de conciencia social y de colectividad’ y el modelo estadounidense, sinónimo de ‘acumulación ilimitada de propiedad privada como condición fundamental del capitalismo’ (p. 4). Sostiene que las elecciones frecuentes de los EEUU crean la ilusión de participación irrestringida, pero que en realidad las élites ricas, cuyo caudal se basa en la propiedad privada, son las que determinan los resultados. Por otra parte, el enfoque inclusivo y participativo cubano en continua evolución fomenta la contribución colectiva real sin necesidad de recurrir a la representación electoral. El autor admite la existencia de corrupción e ineficacias, pero afirma que a pesar de ‘todos los defectos del sistema hay un empeño continuo por mejorar la eficacia y eficiencia de manera a que la soberanía resida verdaderamente en las manos del pueblo’ (p. 190).

Tres partes principales dividen el tratado de August. La primera, intitulada ‘Aclaraciones sobre la democracia’ despeja la mente de nociones preconcebidas en torno a la democracia a través de un replanteamiento de los parámetros que definen la democracia, y, a lo largo del proceso, cuestiona la superioridad del modelo de los EEUU (p. 1). En esta sección August concentra sus reproches más severos sobre el sistema estadounidense. Desde el principio de la historia de los EEUU, la ‘acumulación ilimitada de propiedad privada’ sienta las bases del sistema político, arguye August, y se distingue del ‘proyecto social de la Revolución cubana, el cual se arraiga sobre un socialismo adoptado para el bienestar económico y social de la vasta mayoría del pueblo’ (p. 16). Para demostrar lo que sostiene, August reconstituye el comienzo de la democracia en los EEUU y afirma que el énfasis sobre los derechos a la propiedad privada de hecho limitó la participación política en vez de expandirla. El derecho a la propiedad individual y el capitalismo en expansión teñidos de racismo ‘formaron un compuesto letal con una concentración en participación política extremadamente limitada’ (p. 20). Por lo cual, la superioridad percibida ha empañado el verdadero y nada halagador legado de la democracia en América. August traza las continuidades del modelo democrático hasta llegar a la actualidad, el cual remata con un estudio de caso interesante sobre el gobierno de Obama y la participación política. Habrá historiadores que objeten sobre nimiedades respecto de algunas interpretaciones históricas, sin embargo su argumento central es eficaz.

Tras desmentir repetidas pretensiones de superioridad democrática de los EEUU, August vuelca su atención sobre la participación política en Cuba (principalmente), en Venezuela, en Bolivia y en Ecuador en un análisis brillante que identifica otros cauces posibles por donde corre la democracia. Según August, la diferencia primordial es que la propiedad privada siempre genera una democracia impuesta en forma vertical, mientras que en Cuba y en Venezuela, el énfasis particularmente social da a la población en general un acceso directo a la formulación de políticas. Esta evidencia revela un nivel elevado de participación entre el pueblo, aun cuando August concede que sigue siendo difícil cuantificar la socialdemocracia siglo XXI en cada país.

La elocuencia de August es más persuasiva en las partes segunda y tercera. En ellas demuestra que la ‘participación del pueblo y el empoderamiento’ son rasgos distintivos de las Guerras de Independencia en Cuba y que, en mucho, inspiraron el sistema revolucionario (p. 87). Los líderes revolucionarios adoptaron métodos horizontales de participación cuando los ciudadanos por voluntad propia rechazaron las elecciones tras muchos años de asistir a abusos, escribe. A partir de esto, August expone al desnudo el proceso político moderno de Cuba, revelando así una cantidad impresionante de participación de la base y una buena disposición por parte del gobierno para adaptar sus políticas conforme sea necesario. Si bien el tema tratado se antoja árido en algunas partes, el trazo de las continuidades de la legacía democrática no sólo evidencia el elevado nivel de participación popular de la Cuba actual, sino también la existencia de un legado de democracia de más de un siglo.

Es consabido sin embargo que la objetividad sigue siendo el defecto mortal de los debates sobre ideales cubanos y estadounidenses, y August no constituye una excepción. Por un lado admite con toda franqueza que carece de una ‘actitud favorable’ respecto del sistema de los EEUU, y por otro, rechaza tener una ‘opinión idealizada’ de Cuba o de otros sistemas comparables vecinos (p. xiv). Asevera brindar una investigación equilibrada y dejar que los lectores decidan por cuenta propia, pero tal afirmación es un poco exagerada. El texto repetidamente resalta los atributos desfavorables del sistema estadounidense, al tiempo que afirma las cualidades redentoras del sistema cubano y sistemas comparables. Los lectores que buscan una comparación clínica entre dos versiones contradictorias de democracia quizás se decepcionen. Sin embargo, que estos factores no sorprendan dado el tema y lo que August admite con franqueza. Pero lo más importante es que estos factores no restan mérito a la profunda tesis expuesta: la demostración de la existencia de modelos de democracia específicos basados en la participación activa de la sociedad civil en sitios poco probables.

En síntesis, August logra obligar a los lectores a ampliar sus horizontes y a modificar sus expectativas sobre la democracia. Constituye un argumento muy poderoso sobre la existencia de una democracia cubana en movimiento y la falibilidad de un etnocentrismo estadounidense, y descubre un prisma a los académicos para desarrollar futuros trabajos en materia de modelos políticos.

*David Grantham es aspirante al Doctorado en Historia Contemporánea de América Latina, respaldado con áreas de competencia en Historia Contemporánea de Oriente Medio e Historia Diplomática Contemporánea Estadounidense, en la Texas Christian University de Fort Worth, Texas (EE. UU.). Se especializa en diplomacia, política e intercambios culturales de América Latina y Oriente Medio y ha publicado trabajos sobre la diplomacia del petróleo y la Guerra Fría y su efecto en las relaciones internacionales. Previo a sus actividades académicas, David Grantham ocupó puestos como especialista regional y consejero en materia de seguridad internacional para la Fuerza Aérea de Estados Unidos.

[1] Nota del traductor: las referencias de las páginas corresponden al libro en su versión original y las citas son traducción libre.
MÁS INFORMACIÓN
http://www.democracycuba.com/Book_Review_International_Journal_Cuban_Studies.html,

What Does Democracy Look Like? Cuba, Its ALBA Allies, and the United States

January 15, 2014

Print

by Stansfield Smith

Arnold August. Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion. NY: Palgrave Macmillan / Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing / London: ZED Books, 2013. For full information: .

Arnold August has written an important book on the developing participatory democracy and people’s empowerment in those ALBA countries that form the bulwark of 21st century socialism and anti-imperialism in Latin America: Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Save Cuba, they came to power due to popular anger in reaction to rapacious corporate neoliberalism, which still dominates the US rulers’ agenda here at home. These ALBA countries set the example of the new world that is possible, being built south of the border.

August relates the rise of participatory democracy in Latin America as lessons for the Occupy movement, whose goal is also to demand people’s participation in the political and economic system here. Here in the U.S. we are still confronted with the property concentration in the hands of the 1% — the basis for the non-participatory undemocratic system that rules over our heads.

His book not only presents us with probably the most authoritative account of the Cuban electoral system we could find in English. It also provides a wealth of valuable references to follow firsthand the actual discussions taking place among Cubans on how to further democratize society and fight bureaucracy. Fernando González, one of the Cuban 5 imprisoned in the U.S., wrote, “The book’s description and analysis of the Cuban democratic and electoral system is excellent. It is undoubtedly the best that I have seen written on this theme. There are elements of the democratic functioning of Cuban society that even I myself had not noticed.

Façade of U.S. Democracy

Arnold points out it is not possible for the vast majority of people to participate in a political system that is based on the right to unlimited accumulation of private property. Writing in the times of the Occupy movement and the Wisconsin protests, he draws the link between these popular movements and the democracy in Cuba and these three ALBA countries — all movements in favor of the poorer majority against the rule of the 1%.

The U.S. asserts its façade of democracy is the model for the world. Yet, this democracy has always been for the rich elite, as August notes James Madison’s project: how to keep the appearance of popular government with only a minimum of substance. The U.S. Constitution, unlike those in these ALBA countries, does not mention the word democracy, nor does it state that sovereignty lies in the hands of the people. The U.S. two-party system set up by the ruling elite co-opts social movements and maintains dictatorial control of the economic and political system. In this, Obama had been particularly effective: “trade unionists, some African-American and Latino activists, social activists, progressive academics and intellectuals, and people calling themselves liberals or leftists . . . were ensnared into believing Obama really represents change” (p.29). Liberals and many on the left, August says, play a key role in promoting the “lesser evil” prejudice. Moreover, “[m]ost of the servile Western media and political leaders are fully complicit and directly contributes to their illusions about US democracy” (p. 228).

21st Century Socialism and Participatory Democracy in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador

“21st century socialism,” by its very name, is a vague term. It defines itself in contrast to “the failed, highly centralized model of the Soviet bloc”; yet it has not explained what went wrong there. Was the Soviet system as a whole deficient or were only aspects of it? The failure to delve into this is one reason why “21st century socialism” remains ill defined.

We can say 21st century socialism means people’s empowerment, participatory democracy, and opposition to US imperialism. It demands ending the plunder of natural resources and instead using their benefits to improve the lives of the people. It is opposed to both neoliberalism and US domination. Of the four only Cuba can be called socialist, where “the vast majority of people control the main means of production” and maintain “state planning of the overall economy” (p.3).

In Venezuela, Chávez led the struggle to assert the people’s control over oil wealth and implemented the various social missions offering free medical care, literacy, free secondary and tertiary education, communal land titles, human rights for the indigenous, subsidized state supermarkets, the building of 450,000 new homes, land redistribution, social assistance for indigent mothers, reforestation, support for popular culture and arts.

Communal Councils, neighborhood self-governing councils, were established. Then arose Communes, the regional grouping of councils, with the aim of being self-governing areas or towns. August does not mention the Empresas de Producción Social, cooperative enterprises controlled directly by local communities. The communes, along with social movements, are involved in the planning of the national budget and aim at the eventual establishment of a communal parliament.

Tens of thousands of worker co-ops and communal councils are developing a solidarity economy parallel to the existing capitalist one. The social missions, community councils, and communes attempt to bypass the central government and put power in the hands of the people, creating a situation of dual power. The Venezuelan state plays a central role assisting the grassroots movement, showing there is no contradiction between empowering both the grassroots movements and the central state.

August notes the defects of the Venezuelan system: corruption, incompetence, and government bureaucracy worse in Venezuela than Cuba. Some elected Chavista officials act as obstacles to popular participation. And in Venezuela, as in Ecuador and Bolivia, capitalist relations of production still dominate the economy, the main obstacle to grassroots democracy remaining the power of the capitalist class, backed up by the rulers of the US.

In Bolivia, the 2005 victory of Evo Morales’ party, MAS (Movement Towards Socialism), put an end to the old two-party system. MAS arose from a grassroots movement of the victims of 500 years of apartheid and exclusion. In 2006, a Constitutional Assembly, composed of mostly indigenous peoples, began writing a new constitution. Approved in 2009 by 61% of voters, it called for the socializing and democratizing of the economy and enshrined the concept of Pachamama (Mother Earth).

Evo’s government has improved health care and education, vastly raised the minimum wage, and reduced poverty by 20%. As in Venezuela and Ecuador, the US responded by attempting to overthrow the government: through separatist movements (2008, 2009), assassination attempts, interfering in the highway project through indigenous territory (2011). In both Bolivia and Ecuador, the US has manipulated some indigenous groups and leaders into opposing the progressive governments. Evo’s government resolved the highway issue by setting up an indigenous commission, based on the indigenous communities, having the mandate to decide on the construction of the highway. In the end, 45 of the 46 communities agreed to building the highway.

In Ecuador, Rafael Correa was elected president in 2007, and it too set out to write a new popular constitution. This was approved by 64% of the voters in 2009, largely from the active indigenous communities. This constitution emphasized plurinationalism and environmental protection while insisting that the country’s natural resources are the property of the state. Correa renounced Ecuador’s foreign debt, used its oil wealth to significantly increase spending on education, health care, assistance to mothers and small farmers, and raised the minimum wage 40%. As in Venezuela and Bolivia, in 2010 the US attempted to overthrow Correa.

These three ALBA countries have achieved different levels of participatory democracy; all have taken the income of their natural resources out of the control of international corporations and used it to improve the lives of their people.

The Struggle for National Liberation and Participatory Democracy in Cuba

The bulk of August’s book focuses on the history of the liberation struggle for participatory democracy in Cuba. Fidel and Raul Castro and others began the struggle to renew the 1868-98 Wars of Independence. They fought for the ideals of Jose Martí, highlighting the continuity of the Cuban revolution, from Varela to Céspedes to Martí to Fidel. The 1959 revolutionary victory culminated the Cuban national liberation struggle begun in the mid-1800s, a struggle interrupted by U.S. intervention. Upon victory, they instituted the Moncada Program (outlined in Fidel Castro’s History Will Absolve Me), a key element being the turning over of the latifundias to the peasants, heralding one of the most radical land reforms in modern history.

August challenges the view about the supposed authoritarian state and lack of democracy in Cuba. He notes a series of giant steps taken towards placing political and economic power in the hands of the Cuban people, such as the land reform. This reform led to the US blockade of Cuba, described in U.S. documents at the time as designed “to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of the government.” While this plan to destroy Cuba failed, the blockade still stands as a serious obstacle to any country seeking to take Cuba’s path.

After redistributing lands to poor peasants, Cuba’s democracy advanced when neighborhood committees, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), formed to combat counter-revolutionary violence and terrorism. The CDRs became local organs of self-government. Another step was the forming of the Revolutionary National Militias, arming the whole people.

In 1961 came the Literacy Campaign, mobilizing the nation to teach and involve the illiterate population in a life-changing way. In the mid-1970s democracy deepened with the national legislature, called the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP), and the new Constitution being instituted as a joint project of the representatives of the mass organizations, the Communist Party (CP), and constitutional experts. This discussion was taken to the country’s workplaces, schools, countryside for debate, in which over 6 million participated.

The 1980s Rectification campaign was another mass campaign among the population to combat bureaucracy and corruption, which often go hand in hand. August rightly states that “[p]articipatory democracy is the main potential combatant against bureaucratic practices and dishonest or corrupt bureaucrats” (p. 121).

In 1994 ANPP and the trade unions, Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC), organized Workers’ Parliaments, where hundreds of thousands of workers voiced views and made proposals on tackling the dire economic situation brought about by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the tightening of the U.S. economic blockade. These Workers’ Parliaments arose when the ANPP deputies couldn’t agree on measures to confront the crisis and called for discussions in all work centers and organizations. This is in stark contrast to here, where working people were excluded from the decision-making in confronting the 2008 economic meltdown.

The 2011-12 Cuban Communist Party Congress

August’s chapter on the 2011-2012 Communist Party Congress and the proposed changes arising from it is worth the book itself. Not only does he explain why these changes came about, but he also illuminates the nationwide participatory process that led up to the Congress.

The process began with the speeches against corruption by Fidel and Raul Castro in 2005 and 2007. These led to nationwide grassroots meetings to discuss correcting what was going wrong with the country. In 2007 over 5.1 million people took part in these workplace, school, and neighborhood meetings. These set the groundwork for the CP Congress. Here the CP draft guidelines were again discussed nationwide in 163,000 meetings involving 8.9 million participants.

The people called for decentralizing the administration and the economy, de-bureaucratizing society, more local input to state economic plans, improving health services, maintaining the ration book (providing about half of the people’s food requirements at highly subsidized prices), allowing the buying and selling of homes and cars, more self-employment (390,000 people as of June 2012), more rural and urban cooperatives, and distributing unused land rent-free to individuals for farming.

At the CP Congress, Raul Castro called for eliminating inflated payrolls at state enterprises, reducing them by 500,000 positions. This ran into opposition not only by bureaucrats, but by working people concerned about the effect on their livelihood. As a result the policy is to be carried out very gradually so as to not adversely affect people, as part of “the long-standing democratic political culture of participation and mutual exchange between the base and the leadership” (p. 129).

Another recent mass discussion concerned raising retirement age from 60 to 65 for men, from 55 to 60 for women. Workers’ assemblies convened to discuss it, with 94% of the workforce participating, 3,086,000 workers. August reviews the process by which the leadership’s draft bill was taken to the people and discussed and modified by them before it became law — a far cry from how changes to social security are enacted here in the US.

This “updating of Cuban’s economic model is not a rejection of socialism. On the contrary, it is another experiment to safeguard socialism” (p. 144). Raul Castro spoke at the recent CP Congress of the error of building Cuban socialism in “the excessively centralized model characterizing our economy” and sought “to move in an orderly fashion, with discipline and the participation of all the workers, toward a decentralized system.” As he had said previously, the Cubans “do not intend to copy from anyone again, that brought enough problems for us. . . .”

August has a good section (p. 137-141) on the “dissident” bloggers from the “left” and the right, both inside and outside Cuba, who write for Cuba Encuentro (partially funded by NED) and Havana Times (which actually ran articles supporting rightist Henrique Capriles of Venezuela and opposing “dictatorial” Chávez, repeating standard US propaganda). The book is also an excellent source of references: e.g., , tracking US funding of Cuban “dissidents”; and containing the speeches of Fidel Castro.

Most importantly, August gives us a flavor of the nature of the discussions and debates now alive in Cuba. Of all this, we in the US know next to nothing. To take only a few examples: Olga Fernández Ríos, writing on socialist renewal and the CP Congress, calls on the people to empower themselves as protagonists to put forward their own policy projects. This is needed to establish a permanent participation of the people in national decision-making. The CP Congress’s proposed changes needs “transparency of public management, permanent evaluation and legitimization by the people” (p. 130). Permanent popular participation is the key to struggle against bureaucracy and corruption. A Juventud Rebelde journalist writes of “infernal institutionalized machinery that, in order to justify bloated payrolls, has invented a period [of time] to spend on time-consuming and cumbersome paperwork to bring suffering — I imagine with a certain morbid delight — to the common citizen. The worker’s wasted workdays could otherwise be productive and fruitful.” A director of a Cuban research institute states that “it is necessary to change the civic culture. The citizens must be more proactive and conscious of their role in society.” Another writes a key issue is the “participation and effective political control by People’s Power over the bureaucracy” (p. 132).

Citizens’ participation depends on the press to be fully informed. Fortunately the Cuban press, unlike the US press, is not in the hands of a corporate elite. However, it suffers from other problems and must be transformed to renew the socialist system. Journalists face difficulty accessing information from functionaries, who put obstacles in their way. Some journalists simply repeat what officials tell them and so misinform the public. The CP Political Bureau recently declared that journalists must “exclusively” decide what information of state organizations should be public knowledge. Yet, August notes, bureaucrats and managers remain as arrogant as ever. As a result the grassroots do not have the information that should be public. This undermines popular participation and control. The restraints on freedom of the press partially originate from bureaucrats and corrupt officials. If greater popular control is to succeed, “it will result in a direct confrontation with their privileged position” (p. 137).

Cuba’s Electoral System

Chapter 7 is a description of Cuba’s electoral system and may be the best one available in English. The Communist Party is not involved in nominating or electing candidates. Unlike in the other 20th century Communist countries — and unlike in the US itself — in Cuba citizens themselves propose candidates in municipal, provincial, and national elections. Likewise, the Cuban CP members (800,000 members, 10% of the adult population), in contrast to political party members here or in the Soviet bloc, are chosen by their peers in their workplaces or educational institutions, based on their reputation as model workers.

Unlike in the US, neighbors directly nominate Municipal Assembly candidates among themselves in neighborhoods meetings. Municipal Assembly delegates are elected from the nominees based on secret ballot. Almost all those elected are unpaid, working as people’s representatives after work hours.

Municipal Assembly delegates comprise up to 50% of the deputies to the Provincial and National Assemblies of People’s Power (ANPP). The other 50% are nominated, not in back rooms by party big wigs as in our country, by the six mass organizations: the trade unions (CTC), Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), Federation of University Students (FEU), Federation of Pre-University Students (FEEM), and the CDRs. Clearly this system is vastly more open and democratic than in the US.

ANPP delegates, elected to 5-year terms, are not paid. The ANPP delegates then choose their president, vice-president, and Council of State (who work full-time, with pay). Half the ANPP deputies sit on permanent working government commissions.

The voting age is 16 or older, with no restrictions on the right to vote, which disenfranchise millions in the US. In 2008, 43% of the national People’s Power deputies were women, 6% aged 18-30, 19% Black (who are 10% of the population), and 16% mestizo (25% of the population).

In the early 1990s, People’s Councils were established to encourage more popular participation. “The potential for further democratization of Cuban society at the grassroots,” August states, “lies in the CPs [people’s councils]” (p.221).

“Cuba is a laboratory . . . of a new socialism and democracy” (p. 231). As the Cubans say, they have no guidebook for building socialism, especially that in a Third World country. Every move forward can only be based on trial and error, and since the U.S. rulers remain on watch 24/7 for the chance to seize upon any error to overthrow it, Cuba must proceed cautiously.

An underlying conclusion of August’s book is that, no matter how democratic the structures in any of the ALBA countries, it is only actual popular involvement that guarantees a living participatory democracy. Most importantly, his book shows A New World Is Possible and it is being built in these ALBA countries. It is based on putting people’s needs over those of corporations and on deepening popular participation where people shape their own lives, rather than simply remaining alienated spectators. This we still need to fight to create here.
Stansfield Smith, a long-time anti-war and solidarity activist, belongs to the Chicago Committee to Free the Cuban 5.
http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2013/smith181013.html

A Critical Analysis of Cuba & Its Neighbors

July 16, 2013

Print

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: http://instinctivepath.wordpress.com/tag/arnold-august/

arnold august---(Arnold August)


%d bloggers like this: