Cuban elections are an authentic way for people to participate in the life of the nation, far from the glorified advertising campaigns that pass for elections in many countries.
The Cuban electoral processes take place from the grassroots up in the selection of those who will represent the people at all the levels of government.
Local elections are organized to select the municipal delegates (city council members), and general elections take place to choose provincial assembly delegates and the members of the national Parliament.
According to Cuban law, these elections are called by the Council of State with no less than 120 days notice.
A successful electoral experience that took place thirty years ago in Matanzas province led to a green light for setting up what are called the People’s Power government institutions. These are considered the highest form of truly representative and genuinely democratic government and provide the people with real institutional participation.
An element that makes the Cuban electoral system unique is the way candidates are nominated, a process in which individuals nominate those who they think should be candidates.
The process is not done in the name of Communist Party of Cuba or of any other political, mass or social organization, and takes place at urban and rural community meetings where residents select the nominees by raising their hands.
During these meetings, participants propose candidates for the city councils based on their merits as citizens of the community, and their capacity to act as government representatives.
In each electoral district the maximum number of candidates is eight with a minimum of two. From these, people elect by secret ballot the city council representative from their neighborhood or community.
The correct functioning of the electoral system resides precisely in the high participation at local meetings. This an essential element of the Cuban democracy, sustained by a government of the people, by the people and for the people, as national hero, Jose Marti, and US President Abraham Lincoln proposed.
Voting is not mandatory in Cuba, but it is a right of all eligible citizens, who when going to the polls have only to show their national identity card. According to Cuban law, only the mentally disabled and persons serving time in prisons are not allowed to vote.
Among other aspects of interest to foreign observers is the fact that 16 year olds have the right to elect and be elected and that members of the armed institutions are also able to vote. In the case of the military the right to vote is unique in Latin America, with the exception of Venezuela in 2004.
The absence of military patrols in the streets on election days is something that captures the attention of visiting members of parliaments and other public figures invited to observe elections taking place in Cuba.
Military personnel are not on duty at the polling stations, because school children are the ones that guard the ballot boxes.
At the very moment that elections are called, electoral commissions are created at the national, provincial and municipal levels, formed by citizens known for their praiseworthy work records.
The only pre-condition to be a member of the electoral commissions is to have the right to vote.
Electoral commissions are in charge of determining the electoral districts, they direct the nomination process and the choosing of candidates, and create the proper conditions for the electoral process to take place.
Once the elections are completed they must organize the swearing in of the assemblies and their executive committees at the municipal, provincial and national levels.
Voting is voluntary, secret and direct, and vote counting is done in public. Foreign diplomats and observers can also witness the process.
In order to be elected, a candidate must win more than 50 percent of the votes.
Today’s Cuban electoral system is very different from the one that operated here prior to 1959, when the system of voter registration allowed for “miracles” such as deceased persons voting and for others to cast more than one ballot.
Elderly Cubans recall the dirty tricks used by politicians who withheld voter registration documents, where you could read a statement saying that voting was mandatory for all citizens.
The elector that didn’t vote could be fined and even banned from assuming government jobs or holding office.
The ethical standards that are part of the Cuban electoral process today explicitly prohibit political campaigns to convince voters to choose a specific candidate or to attack the prestige of an opponent.
The delegates, who form part of the municipal People’s Power Assemblies, have to provide voters with a yearly report of their activities and receive absolutely no payment for their work as council persons.
In the elections of 2003 for example, voter turnout was 95.75 percent to elect the municipal and provincial delegates, and a 97.61 percent turnout when the elections for the national Parliament took place.
The above figures contrast with the situation prevailing before 1959, when, for example, in 1944 Ramon Grau San Martin was elected President of Cuba with only a 44.71 voter’s turnout, and in 1954, a similar situation occurred when Fulgencio Batista was elected with only a 45.61 percent participation at the ballot boxes, this despite all the fraud that took place.
The low abstention in Cuban elections compares very favorably with what happens in many so called First World elections. A shining example is the United States of America, where in order to elect George W. Bush as President in the year 2000, only thirty seven percent of voting age citizens went to the polls, in one of the lowest voter turnouts of recent years.