Results of the five-yearly Cuban national assembly elections on March 26 will have disappointed opposition figures, who had called for a boycott to signal unhappiness with the government’s performance.
Two-thirds of the electorate submitted valid votes (that were not spoiled nor blank) despite opposition calls for people to stay away. Given all the difficulties and tensions of the past few years, the high numbers of voters seems to suggest that, although it is under strain, the Cuban political system is more resilient than expected. Turnout had been dropping since the days of former leader Fidel Castro, and poor voter numbers could have signalled significant dissatisfaction with the current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez.
One of the reasons for the high turnout may be a sense of communal rejection of US threats to national sovereignty, the importance of which should not be ignored, according to historians such as Louis Pérez. Tightening of US sanctions has certainly contributed to everyday suffering and economic hardship. Another reason for a high turnout may be President Díaz-Canel Bermúdez’s efforts to push ahead with reforms, increasing accountability and creating more opportunities for private enterprise and participation in decision-making at local level.
The election results and turnout of 76% might also be interpreted as an indication that among the majority who still support the government even in the middle of the recession, there is an increased willingness to actively express preferences rather than offer unconditional loyalty. This shift is expressed in the growing proportion (up from 20% of valid votes in 2018 to 28% in 2023) who selected specific candidates from the list for their constituency, rather than fully complying with official encouragement to simply indicate acceptance of the complete slate.
The elections mark the end of the first term of Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, during which the population has suffered from a severe recession.
Since the last election in 2018, the country has witnessed a series of major disasters, including a plane crash, three hurricanes, three tropical storms, a tornado, a gas explosion that destroyed a hotel and a huge fire at the country’s main oil depot. But the economic impact of those disasters were dwarfed by two further blows: the COVID pandemic and, above all, US foreign policy towards Cuba.
Despite the development and successful roll-out of effective vaccines, the possibility of an economic bounce-back from the COVID-induced recession (an 11% fall in GDP) has been effectively blocked by unprecedented restrictions on Cuba’s access to international trade and finance resulting from US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and maintained under Joe Biden’s presidency.
March 2023 election: type of vote
The effects of COVID and tightened US sanctions have combined with the sorry state of the country’s infrastructure. Another factor was caused by the price of food and energy imports soaring between 2020 and 2022, which resulted in power outages and food shortages. A 2021 currency reform exacerbated disruption and hardships by sparking an inflationary surge.
Long queues and a growing sense of frustration also contributed to unprecedented protests in mid-2021 and a record-breaking wave of emigration. In 2022, almost 250,000 people – over 2% of the population – are reported to have left for the US, including many of Cuba’s youngest and brightest.
How do elections work?
The Cuban electoral system was originally created as a “participatory” rather than “representative” system of democracy in an attempt to avoid the political conflict, violence, corruption and foreign interference experienced before the 1959 revolution, as described by political scientist William LeoGrande.
As the Cuban Communist party is the only legal political party, Cuban elections are not contests between parties. The 470 candidates for the national assembly do not represent the party. Instead, around half of them are representatives of municipal governments (themselves elected in municipal elections) and the rest are nominated by bigger organisations. These include neighbourhood committees, official trade unions, the women’s federation, students’ organisations and the small farmers’ association. Local electoral commissions then select one candidate for each seat from the list of nominated candidates. It is not a requirement for candidates, members of mass organisations or the electoral commission to be members of the party; however, many are, effectively making it impossible for self-proclaimed dissidents to be selected.
The local electoral commissions, whose members are selected from the mass organisations, are responsible for the organisation of the ballots and counting of the vote. Once selected, candidates must receive over 50% of valid votes to become a member of the national assembly. Voters can either accept all the candidates on the list for their constituency (a “united vote”) or select some and not others. Voting is secret and voluntary.
Over the years, and particularly over the past decade, efforts have been made to ensure that candidates are representative of the population. They include ministers, workers, farmers, educators, managers and health workers. The average age of candidates in 2023, at 46 years, is lower than previous elections, while the proportion who are non-white has increased (45% compared with 41% in 2018), and 53% are women.
The national turnout for these elections, confirmed by the national electoral commission, was 76%. Although this is above the turnout in legislative elections in the UK (67.3% in 2019) and US (at 62.8% of the voting age population in 2020 and 47.5% in 2022, according to the Pew Research Center), it is significantly less than the 86% recorded in the last national election in 2018. The abstention rate increased, from 14% registered electors in 2018 to 24% in 2023, and in blank or spoiled ballots, from 5.6% to 9.7%, a possible indication that the hardship of the past few years have taken their toll on public confidence in the government.
Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who lacks the status and charisma of his predecessors Fidel Castro and his brother, Raúl Castro (who were both leaders of the 1959 revolution), will need to be alert to concerns of the electorate as he begins his second term. He will need to find ways to improve living standards quickly. He has pushed ahead with reforms to allow Cubans to create private companies, foster innovation through university-enterprise links, and devolve budgets and decision-making to enable municipal authorities to directly respond to local demands.
However, with inflation persisting and fiscal resources overstretched, his scope for macroeconomic stimulation is restricted. A major obstacle is the US government’s seeming commitment to retain the most important economic sanctions, but Díaz-Canel Bermúdez must prevent further erosion in confidence in Cuba’s government and its political system.