Don’t worry about Cuba’s shamtastic elections — focus instead on Castro’s reforms

Cuba — the Caribbean’s most populous nation with over 11 million people — is holding parliamentary elections this Sunday.cuba

But those elections are so stage-managed by the Cuban government that they make the recent troubling Jordanian elections look like best practices in liberal democracy.

As a technical matter, Cuban voters will elect all 612 members of the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular (the National Assembly of People’s Power).

Fortuitously, there are exactly 612 candidates who have been selected for the honor of running in the election, which follows virtually no campaigning or fundraising or any of the other effluvia of modern elections.  It’s fair to say that, in contrast, the selection of the Politburo Standing Committee of the People’s Republic of China, has much more drama.

That’s probably all the same, anyway, given that the Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC, Communist Party of Cuba) has been enshrined in the Cuban constitution as the country’s governing party since 1959.

The National Assembly meets just twice a year, and although it’s officially the ultimate law-making authority in Cuba, the reality is that its role is essentially to ratify decisions made by the executive branch of Cuba’s government, where the real power lies with Cuban president Raúl Castro (pictured above, left, with his brother Fidel Castro).  He heads both the Consejo de Estado (the Council of State), a 31-member body that exercises legislative authority in between the two annual sessions of the National Assembly, and the Consejo de Ministros (Council of Ministers), essentially the Cuban government’s cabinet:

Since virtually all decisions are made as executive orders by the Council of Ministers, the parliament is relegated to rubber stamping decisions already made and sometimes already implemented.

Virtually all votes are unanimous and any debates among the members are held behind closed doors. Even an abstention is highly rare. This is to say 612 deputies routinely agree with every executive order passed by the Council of Ministers.

Despite the sham elections, it’s nonetheless a dynamic time for Cuban policymaking, so there’s never been a more optimistic time for proponents of economic and even political reform.  Furthermore, given the advanced age of both Castro brothers — Raúl is currently 81 — it’s nearly certain that Cuba’s leadership will pass to a new generation sooner rather than later.

Although the elections won’t hold much suspense, Julia E. Sweig, the Council on Foreign Relations’s director for Latin American Studies, argued recently that it’s worth noting the composition of the new National Assembly:

As another big demographic and political development: some 67 percent of the candidates for 612 spots are completely new picks, and of these, more than 70 percent were born after 1959. Women comprise 49 percent of the candidates, and Afro descendents 37 percent. Cubans will be asked to check yea or nay from this new list–so it’s not a direct competition between candidates. But if you want to understand where the successors to Fidel and Raul may come from, I’d look closely at the new group that comes in next month.

Notably, some old-time party leaders like Ricardo Alarcón, who has served as the president of the National Assembly since 1993, and who was once viewed as a potential Castro successor, will not stand for election.

Cuba remains a one-party authoritarian state — it ranks 176 out of 177 for economic freedom (better than North Korea, at least!) in the Heritage Foundation’s 2012 rankings, 167 out of 179 for press freedom in the 2011-2012 Reporters without Borders rankings, and 126 out of 167 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s most recent 2011 democracy ratings, putting it in the company of places like Algeria, Libya and Kuwait.  No one will be mistaking Cuba for a liberal democracy with a thriving and efficient market economy anytime soon.

But that has been slowly changing under Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president officially in 2008, and has been very gradually opening the country to reforms, such as decentralizing some tax and spending power to Cuba’s provinces.

Privatization reforms are transforming the Cuban economy — not quite into a capitalist free-for-all, but have slowly introduced market economics to an island that for 50 years was strictly state-run.  Still a predominately state-run mixed economy for now, Cuba’s government hopes that nearly 50% of the Cuban economy will be generated by private industry within the next four years.

The economy has becoming increasingly privatized since the Cuban state announced it would lay off 500,000 employees — one-tenth of the state’s employees — in 2010 and 2011, while simultaneously loosening the economy to allow for private businesses and self-employment, with a progressive taxation system in the works as well.

Earlier this month, Castro lifted travel restrictions on Cuban citizens that had been in place since 1961, eliminating a process of mandatory — and expensive and time-consuming — exit visas in order to travel abroad.

Marino Murillo, who himself was born in 1961 — two years after the Cuban revolution — was appointed minister of economy and planning in 2009 when Raúl moved to install his own advisers in the Cuban cabinet.  Murillo currently serves as the chairman of the economic policy commission of the PCC, but he continues to spearhead the Cuban economic reform efforts and, as such, he could ultimately wind up succeeding Castro in the event of Raúl’s death or retirement, especially if the reforms begin to generate real improvements in well-being and standards of living.

Although the pace of political reform has been much slower, there’s nonetheless been progress in some areas, such as gay rights, where Raúl’s openly gay daughter Mariela has pushed the regime toward adopting a less discriminatory tone and advocating gay marriage, to the point where LGBT marriage rights seem likelier to become a nationwide reality in Cuba sooner than in the United States.

Moreover, Cuba has never been more influential in Latin American affairs.

In recent years, however, as the Cold War recedes in memory, Cuba has taken an increasingly greater role in regional politics — it was readmitted to the Organization of American States in 2009 after a suspension that began in 1962.

Its longstanding ties with the regime of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who is recuperating from a recent surgery in Cuba, mean not only a vital source of cheap oil for Cuba, but also that the Cuban government will play an outsized role in any succession if Chávez ultimately succumbs to the cancer he’s currently fighting — and sure enough, Venezuelan vice president Nicolás Maduro is thought to be favored by Cuba as well as by Chávez.

Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, is a leftist ally and looks increasingly like a lock for reelection later this month, and Havana counts among its allies Evo Morales in Bolivia as well.

But even more pragmatic centrists pay their respects to Cuba these days.  Newly inaugurated Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, who has indicated he will pursue a market-friendly economic reform agenda in México over the next six years, warmly embraced Castro over the weekend in Santiago, calling for a new era in Cuban-Mexican relations at the regional summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, where, incidentally, Castro assumed the CELAC presidency through 2014.

Meanwhile this week, former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is visiting Cuba and will meet with Castro.  Lula da Silva, president from 2003 to 2011, who may yet run again, is beloved in Brazil and throughout Latin America for his tenure, during which he increased social spending aimed at reducing poverty and inequality, while boosting economic reform and market efficiency, and presiding over breakneck GDP growth.

If anything, the United States, which has enforced an embargo on Cuba since the 1962 missile crisis and essentially forbids its citizens to travel to Cuba (just 90 miles south of Florida), is now more isolated in Latin America because of its Cuba policy, with both U.S. allies and opponents in the region calling for a détente between the two, as Sweig noted:

Stripping this whole thing bare, as far as I can tell, there is really no foreign policy reason why the United States does not have a normal, or least more natural, diplomatic and economic relationship with Cuba. In fact, there is a serious foreign policy downside for not having that. In Latin America, we just saw the president earlier in 2012 attend the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, where there was a full court, unanimous message from the center, center-left, right, center-right, and every single country in the region, including Washington’s closest allies, telling Washington to get it together with Havana, it is time to move forward.

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