Cuba: casting a vote in doubtful times

How does voting with a cloud of uncertainty looming over Cuba affect their vote?
Photo: Bruno / CC BY-SA 2.0/ Flickr

On the 11th of March 2018, Cubans turned out to the polls to vote.

In a press release, the President of the National Elections Commission of Cuba, Aline Balseiro Gutiérrez, announced that the 605 candidates in the elections were now deputies of the new National Assembly.

With over 8.6 million citizens eligible to vote, more than 7.3 million people cast their ballot, representing 85.65% of the voting population. 94.42% of those votes would be considered valid by law.

The new President will be announced on the 19th of April 2018. For the first time since the 1959 Revolution, Cubans will designate a leader who is not a Castro.

Cuba vs the world

Cubans do not directly elect their president, they elect the National Assembly that selects the President.

The Cuban National Assembly is the legislative branch of government that has the authority to vote laws, amend the Constitution and form committees for investigative and forensic purposes. It also selects the members of the Council of State, which includes the President of Cuba.

Determining the members of the National Assembly decides the next Cuban President. This most likely explains the 85.65% voter turnout.

In a global context, this is an above average statistic. According to the World Bank, which used its 189 country members as its sample pool, the world average voter turnout is in decline and, as of 2015, a little over 60%. With a clear 25% difference, Cuba’s voter turnout shows a comparatively high voter participation in elections.

Yet, since Cuba’s electoral reform twenty-five years ago, this voter turnout is the lowest recorded for the island.

Why was voter turnout so low?

When asked what could account for this, Antoni Kapcia, Professor of Latin American History at the University of Nottingham and Director of the Centre for Research on Cuba, stated that it was simply too early to tell.

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“The Cubans will do [the] assessments in due course (as they do worry about falling participation and like to address problems they identify), but it will take a while,” he said to WIB.

Nevertheless, he did hint at some possible reasons, such as the fact that neither Fidel nor Raúl Castro will contest or hold the position of President. Both brothers played pivotal roles in the 1959 Revolution and in shaping the political and ideological structure of contemporary Cuba.

Hence, after almost sixty years of Castro rule, for Kapcia, “uncertainty about the future may have also played a role”

A brief guide to voting in Cuba

Uncertainty in the context of the Cuban National Assembly elections requires a closer look at the electoral process. Cuban elections take place under a one-party system in which the voting public elects individuals to the Assembly.

Candidates can neither campaign in their own favour nor accept external funding. However, they can divulge their own biography and image, and interact with voters at workplaces and events, in accordance with Article 171 of the Electoral Law of 1992.

Hence, this voting system can create three types of voter convictions – those for the system, those in opposition with the system and those who passively or reluctantly accept the system.

“The fact that it’s not a vote for either Fidel or Raúl may have affected some middle [-ground] voters, who were often more loyal to the individuals than to ‘the system’” Kapcia elaborated.

Thus, this last election may have been shrouded in uncertainty for those voters. The Castro name has proven itself through many obstacles in Cuban history, most importantly through the Revolution.  

Young blood, post-revolutionary blood

It is suggested that current First Vice President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is likely to succeed Raúl Castro come April. He is decades younger than the Castros and grew up in post-Revolution Cuba.

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This may be another determining factor for voters. When correlating the age of the candidates and the number of votes in their favour, Cuban online news platform 14 y medio finds that a high percentage of votes went to candidates who participated in the 1959 Revolution.

But can it be considered a hindrance? While Raúl Castro obtained 98.77% of the votes in his district, Miguel Díaz-Canel obtained 92.85% of the votes in his. Moreover, according to OnCuba, a US online magazine that specialises in Cuba, it will be the first time serving for 55.87% of those elected to the National Assembly.

It would be unfair to equate the first time serving in the Assembly with the first time presenting at the polls. Nonetheless, while some Cubans may prefer familiarity, it would also be untrue to say that they are afraid to give someone the chance to prove themselves.

“The Special Period in the Time of Peace”

It is a different story, however, when it comes to major political shifts. Kapcia also highlighted another period in post-Revolution history where voter turnout was as low – The Special Period.

This period refers to a time in the 1990s when Cuba was vulnerable to the whims of the United States when its major ideological, economic and commercial partner – the USSR – collapsed. It was difficult to import food, medical supplies, infrastructural material and to conduct trade.

By that time, Fidel had been President for almost three decades.

Yet, according to OnCuba, a little over 7.8 million voters turned out at the urns in 1992, and only 7.9 million in 1997. However, voter turnouts in the 2000s – when Cuba experienced more stable times – saw more than 8 million voters.

In that instance, Cubans did not know Fidel the Leader in a time of economic crisis and were less inclined to vote. Now, faced with the unknown in Díaz-Canel the President, voters may have used the same reasoning too.

Caribbean Connections
Akilah Edwards-Rose

A proud Trinidad and Tobagonian, and Caribbean woman, Akilah has spent almost a decade in France, Brazil and Belgium pursuing her career in country development and research and, by a twist of fate, promoting Caribbean interests abroad. Adept in policy analysis and cross-cultural relations, she has been a key player in developing an English-Caribbean presence in France, a contributor to deepening the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Island youth presence in Belgium and a cog in promoting Caribbean music and arts in Europe. She is currently trying to master stilt-walking, hoping to become a proficient salsa-on-stilts dancer one day.
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