The US and Britain are not in a position to lecture Cuba on the nature of ‘democracy,’ writes Bernard Regan.Following President Barack Obama’s release of Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero, the remaining three of the Miami Five, to join Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez back in Cuba there has bee much speculation about the future of Cuba-United States relations.
Obama has claimed that political relations between Cuba and the US are about to enter a “new chapter.”
It remains to be seen just how much of a new chapter will be written, but what is certain is that the US and its allies will once again be criticising Cuba framed around such topics as “democracy.”
Let’s be clear. Washington is in no position to lecture anyone about democracy.
Few, if any, of Cuba’s critics ever pause to ask the question: “What is meant by democracy?”
After all, there are many forms of democracy and even when countries have had elections, the US has often ignored the outcomes unless they produce governments Washington approves of.
One only has to look at Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s 2013 victory to see what scant regard the US has for electoral processes.
On December 12 the US House of Representatives voted to impose sanctions against Venezuela.
Similarly, in Palestine an internationally observed open electoral process returned a Hamas majority in 2006 which the White House and its Israeli ally refused to accept.
A blockade was imposed on Gaza which to all intents and purposes is still in place.
The White House and Wall Street are not interested in democracy — they are interested in achieving their own political and economic agendas.
When president George W Bush established the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba in 2003, chaired by secretary of state Colin Powell, the May 2004 report made clear that the objective was to achieve a transition “from communism to democracy and free markets.”
The White House press statement on Cuba issued on Wednesday December 17, coinciding with Obama’s speech, made clear that the change in policy was because the blockade had not worked.
It emphasised that “options for promoting the growth of entrepreneurship and the private sector in Cuba will be explored.”
The statement made clear that the expansion of “commercial sales/exports from the United States of certain goods and services … will seek to empower the nascent private sector.”
It is there for everyone to see that any US funds to Cuba will be to spur on the private sector.
The big US corporations will be looking to take over the island’s economy.
We know only too well from our own experience what will then happen to social welfare, the health service and education as a result.
“Democracy,” in the language of the US administration, is simply a euphemism for “privatisation” and the restoration of unfettered capitalism.
Anyone who doubts this should look at the contract-grapping exercise by US companies that accompanied the introduction of “democracy” to Iraq.
Cuba’s achievements in the fields of medicine and education are because of the kind of government it has, not in spite of it.
When the Soviet Union ended in 1990, the Cuban economy faced a catastrophic collapse, losing 70 per cent of its imports — far more significant than the impact of the 2008 banking crisis in Britain.
Notwithstanding that, Havana maintained the education and health services. Not a single teacher or medic lost their job. People did not starve to death. What a contrast with Britain today.
Why were education and health protected in Cuba? Quite simply put, because they are rights, alongside a host of others, which are written into the constitution of the country itself.
To pass over these gains as though there was no relationship between the nature of the state, governmental forms and economic policies is a mistake.
Shouldn’t we regard good-quality health and education, protection in employment and decent pensions as essential to any democracy? Shouldn’t they be seen as rights?
The US understands the relationship between state, governmental forms and political outcomes far better than many.
That is why Washington wants “regime change” in Havana.
It recognises that it is the Cuban state which defends these gains.
Let us then turn to the question of democracy in Cuba. To begin with, one might wonder what model of democracy should the Cubans adopt?
Perhaps that of their neighbours to the north, where money determines votes and the real competition lies in who gets what for their financial backing of the presidency?
Or to the mainland to their west, Mexico, where elections in 2006 and 2012 were marred by massive ballot-rigging, 43 students have disappeared and thousands of others have been murdered?
Or maybe the British system, where a handful of press barons constantly seek to manipulate public opinion to their own advantage?
What about an unelected second chamber and an unelected head of state? The right of recall of parliamentarians? What about public expressions of opinion like the multimillion demonstration against the Iraq war?
Which of these examples of “democracy” should Cuba look to?
And if the answer is “none of the above” then let’s have a serious discussion about how countries should be run, rather than repeat the tired tropes of the press barons we all despise.
The truth is that there is no “perfect” form of democracy.
Each and every governmental form has been the product of years of history and is the outcome of social, economic, political and cultural factors.
Cuba should have the right to decide its own constitution, what changes to make to it and when.
The parliamentary structure that exists in Cuba is not the same as that in Britain.
In the pre-revolutionary days before 1959, political parties were the pawns of US mafia gangsters and their Cuban acolytes.
Corrupt to their core, they were backed by “pistoleros” who enforced the will of the gangsters looking to protect their “assets” in the casinos, brothels and money rackets that abounded.
Today there are national elections every five years, with candidates nominated by their peers in contested elections. Political parties, including the Communist Party, are not allowed to stand.
Candidates have to take part in hustings, have their biographical details published, accept that their electors have the right of recall and are paid based on the salary that they earned in employment.
The composition of the Cuban assembly far more corresponds to the social background, gender and age of its constituents than the British Cabinet or even Parliament, stuffed as it is with bankers, lawyers, ex-military, millionaire private school miseducated individuals.
Of those elected to the Cuban National Assembly in 2012, 49 per cent were women and 80 per cent were born after the revolution in 1959.
In Cuba the involvement of the people in decision-making is not restricted to parliamentary elections once every five years, as it is in Britain.
When the government in Havana proposed wide-ranging changes to the economy in 2008, for example, exhaustive discussions were held in local community organisations, professional bodies, trade unions, women’s organisations, student bodies and workplace meetings.
These discussions generated 1.3 million proposals, many of which were incorporated into the final decisions.
What British chancellor has even entered discussions with his own government, let alone the broad mass of people before laying down the Budget in Parliament?
When were local communities and mass organisations ever consulted on the government’s economic proposals here in Britain?
Many commentators seem to assume that a complete change in relations between the US and Cuba is imminent.
They may be right.
But while Obama has the power to vary aspects of the aggressive policies imposed on Cuba, he will need the backing of Congress to remove the most pernicious structures that underpin the blockade — the Helms-Burton Act and the Torricelli Act.
It is these two pieces of legislation which are the most oppressive.
They even forbid third-party countries trading with the island or indeed selling any item to Cuba which contains substantial components originating from the US.
Obama needs Congressional backing to repeal these two Acts which are the basis of the blockade.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio complains that Obama’s changes to the status of bilateral relations would be “just another concession to tyranny.”
Rubio may appear alone but his challenge has been echoed by Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and a Republican hopeful for the 2016 presidential election.
More politicians have been lining up to attack the modest proposals from the White House. It is no given that Cuba-US relations have radically changed — we need to wait and see.
Opposition to any change in US-Cuba relations is of course intimately connected to a recognition of the role that Cuba has played in respect to Latin America.
What has happened in Venezuela, Bolivia and elsewhere has been made possible as a result of Cuba’s steadfast resistance to prolonged hostility from its neighbour to the north.
One only has to read and listen to the opinions of Bolivian President Evo Morales, Maduro, late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and others to appreciate this.
The White House press statement referred to above made clear what the aspirations of the US are: “Today, we are renewing our leadership in the Americas.”
As Hillary Clinton said in her book Hard Choices, Cuba is the “gatekeeper” of Latin America — re-establishing relations with Cuba is key to the White House regaining its lost legitimacy in the continent.
On the left we need a debate about the question of democracy — let’s not allow the bile and prejudice of those who fear that Cuba’s example and values of putting people before profits might influence others to cloud what should be a worthwhile discussion.
The key to a lasting and meaningful change in Cuba-US relations must be based on complete respect for the sovereignty of the other.
The US has yet to prove it accepts that principle.
Bernard Regan is secretary of Cuba Solidarity Campaign. This article is written in a personal capacity. This article was originally published in the Morning Star