Government and Politics

Spain did not create political units on Cuba until 1827. In that year, the Spanish began to govern the island through three loosely defined departments: Occidental (Western), Central (Central), and Oriente (Eastern). The departments were under the command of a captain general who lived in Havana. Each department had several towns. The towns had broad areas of sparsely settled land separating them. Mayors and judges within each department collected taxes and administered the law. To the chagrin of the colonists, the king only appointed officials who were of pure Spanish descent.

Today’s Cuban provinces have their origins in 1879. By then, colonists had established many new settlements, particularly in the interior of the island. The bloody First War of Independence had just ended. The captain general had to control Cuba’s still-rebellious population. He wanted to occupy the island with his troops in clearly defined areas. The six provinces that he established were Pinar del Rio, Havana, Matanzas, Las Villas, Camaguey, and Oriente.

Cuba’s population was about 1.5 million in 1879. It grew fourfold to 6 million by 1959. Yet, the same six provinces still made up the country. The government finally revised its constitution in 1976 to include the island’s current 14 provinces. Since 1976, the government made the fewest changes in western Cuba. The boundaries of two western provinces, Pinar del Rio and Matanzas, had hardly changed at all. The city of Havana’s population (1.75 million) was so large that it became a separate province. The rest of Havana province remained intact. In central Cuba, Las Villas became three provinces—Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, and Villa Clara. Additionally, the former Camaguey Province became two provinces—Ciego de Avila and Camaguey. Finally, the division of Oriente Province yielded five provinces—Granma, Guantanamo, Holguin, Las Tunas, and Santiago de Cuba.

REPUBLIC OF CUBA (1902-1959)

In 1902, Cuba created a republican government similar to that of the United States. It had three branches. The executive branch consisted of a president and a cabinet appointed by the president. The legislative branch was bicameral (a two-house body) consisting of a senate and a house. Voters elected 54 senators, 9 from each of the country’s six provinces. The number of house members that voters elected from each province depended on the population size of the province. The larger the province the greater the number of house members. The judicial branch included a supreme court that interpreted laws and made rulings on court cases appealed to it by lower courts. There were six district courts; each had a province in its jurisdiction (territorial range of authority). District courts ruled on cases dealing with provincial matters and they oversaw lower courts that had jurisdictions at the municipal level.

A republican government allows its citizens to form political parties and to elect people to represent them. Cuba’s republican period had serious political turmoil, which led to labor strikes, demonstrations, and riots. Opposing political parties even resorted to terror tactics, such as kidnappings and bombings. The Cuban military took over the government several times. Additionally, the United States used the Platt Amendment to bring in U.S. troops on several occasions. The Cubans were unable to function as an independent republic. This left doors open for the 1959 Cuban Revolution and Communism under Castro’s leadership.

COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT (1959-PRESENT)

Cuba’s government has been a one-party Communist government since 1965. All other political parties are illegal. The government divided provinces into municipalities for voting purposes. (Municipalities are similar to counties in the United States.) Voters in each municipality elect Communist Party members to municipal assemblies. The assemblies choose members of the National Assembly, the government’s legislative branch. Members of the National Assembly have five-year terms. Municipality voters also elect members to provincial governments. Since there are no other political parties, voters can elect only Communist Party members to office.

Communism seeks to abolish capitalism, which is an economic system based on individual ownership and enterprise in a free-market economy. Supply and demand drive the prices of goods and services in such an economy. In contrast, a Communist state emphasizes the requirements of the State, rather than individual liberties. People do not even own their own homes. The State owns all homes and operates all farms, factories, schools, businesses, railroads, television stations, newspapers, sports teams and facilities, banks, apartments, and so on. The State sets the prices of most goods. The State also tries to distribute wealth evenly by setting similar wages for jobs that require very different skills. Hence, a factory worker might earn as much money as a medical doctor.

Communism is disappearing from the community of nations. It has serious economic and political shortcomings. The State’s leveling of wages and controlling of prices discourages people from working hard. This low productivity results in poor quality and scarcity of goods. People seek more and better products; smuggling, bribery, theft, and other crimes become problems. Additionally, Communism’s one-party system does not allow citizens to organize a political opposition in order to change the government peacefully.

Cuba is one of the few remaining Communist countries in the world. It does not remain Communist because of any inherent economic or political virtues. Through Castro’s leadership, the Communist Party  and a secret police force suppress any political dissent that might lead to the replacement of Communism.

GOVERNMENT STRUCTURE

Raul Castro is a dictator: He controls all major social, economic, and political activities in the country.

The Cuban legislature is a unicameral (one-house body) called the National Assembly. The National Assembly is, in fact, the Communist Party’s elected representative body. Communist Party members in hundreds of Cuban municipalities elect members to the 601-member assembly. Members serve five-year terms. The National Assembly meets only twice a year for a few days each time.

The National Assembly essentially rubber-stamps political appointments. It also passes legislation that the president desires. When the assembly is not meeting, the Council of State, which has 31 members, governs the country. As its president, Castro has final say on all political matters before the council.

The Council of Ministers is the executive branch of government. It has 37 members that are controlled by Castro. This body is comparable to the U.S. government’s cabinet. Each minister oversees a particular government function. (For example, the minister of transportation oversees the building and maintenance of roads.) Castro has the power to dismiss ministers from office. He even can redefine the function of a ministry. One ministry, the Ministry of the Interior, is Castro’s main government office for gathering intelligence. The information is used to crack down on political dissidents.

Loyal members of the Communist Party, who report on suspicious activities, behavior, or conversations, supply most of the intelligence.

The constitution provides for independent courts. Nevertheless, Castro controls them as the head of the National Assembly and the Council of State. The People’s Supreme Court is the highest judicial body. The courts, from the People’s Supreme Court down, routinely deny due process (the right to a fair and speedy trial) to political protesters. The courts’ denial of due process in political cases is legal. The Cuban constitution states that judges can deny all legally recognized civil liberties to anyone that opposes the “decision of the Cuban people to build socialism.”

The Communist Party decides who gets government jobs and promotions, including judgeships. Party membership is a prerequisite for high-level government positions. The party promotes its members in professions (such as education, medicine, and law) before they do nonmembers.

BUREAUCRACY

A by-product of the existing political system is the creation of a massive bureaucracy (government administration). The Cuban government, from the local to the national level, suffers from staggering bureaucratic inefficiency. This situation imposes a huge burden on an already fragile economy. Statistically, more than two-thirds of employed Cubans work in a service sector. It is something even the developed nations would find encouraging. Yet a good portion of people employed in the service sector do little productive work. They are so-called “paper pushers” and have little to contribute in terms of overall efficiency. The problem has been recognized even at the highest level. Unfortunately, reforms to lessen the burden and to increase efficiency and accountability have seen little progress thus far.

REVOLUTIONARY ARMED FORCES

Cuba became a highly militarized society under Fidel Castro. Massive military assistance from the former Soviet Union made this possible. Cuba’s air force was the best equipped in Latin America in 1990. It had about 150 Soviet-supplied fighters, including advanced MiG-23 Floggers and MiG-29 Fulcrums. Cuba’s military buildup peaked in the early 1990s, when its armed forces reached 235,000 regular troops.

U.S. intelligence agencies report that Cuba’s military readiness has decreased since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In addition to reductions in active manpower, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba (FAR) has a large portion of its heavy equipment, such as tanks, trucks, and planes, in storage. Most of the stored equipment is unavailable on short notice and cannibalized for spare parts to keep active duty equipment operating.

The FAR must now grow its own food and raise money to pay for some of its own expenses. Significant numbers of active duty forces are devoted to agricultural, business, and manufacturing activities that help feed the troops and generate revenues.

Cuba still maintains two battalions of forces called Special Troops. Together they include 2,000 personnel. These units are smaller than they were when the Soviet Union dissolved, but they still can perform special military and internal security missions. These battalions are part of the official structure of the Ministry of the Interior, and they are the most highly trained of all Cuba’s military personnel. Special Troops utilize light weaponry and explosives. Their original mission was to provide for the personal security of Fidel Castro. They also have carried out special operations in Castro’s wars of liberation.

POLICE STATE

Most Communist countries become police states, as Communism emphasizes requirements of the State rather than individual freedoms. A police state purposely uses its police force (and its military) to stay in power. One way of achieving this goal is to keep people from expressing their dissatisfaction. In Cuba, any expression of displeasure at the loss of freedom or any defiance of the Communist system can lead to arrest and punishment by a fine, imprisonment, banishment, or even execution. The Cuban police and Communist Party authorities routinely harass, threaten, imprison, and humiliate defiant citizens.

Trials are unfair and usually are over in less than one day. There are no jury trials. Trials of political dissidents are not open to the public. Often the only evidence against a defendant is the defendant’s confession. The police usually obtain it by the use of force or threats during interrogation. The defendant usually does not see his or her lawyer until the day of the trial, so the defendant faces judgment without prior legal advice. Prisoners die in jail due to a lack of medical care. Members of security forces and prison officials often beat and otherwise abuse detainees and prisoners.

The government also infringes upon the privacy rights of citizens. It denies citizens the freedoms of speech and press. The government punishes any unauthorized assembly of more than three persons by up to three months in prison and a fine. The authorities selectively enforce this punishment and often use it to harass and imprison human-rights advocates.

The government organizes Communist Party members into block committees. Block committees watch for suspicious activities in their neighborhoods. Examples of suspicious activities include spending lots of money, unauthorized meetings with foreign visitors, and defiant attitudes toward the government. The Interior Ministry’s Department of State Security controls all access to the Internet. All electronic mail messages are subject to censorship. The ministry also reads international correspondence. It monitors all overseas telephone calls, and it even monitors domestic phone calls and correspondence.

The government also monitors the distribution of foreign publications and news, reserving them for selected faithful party members. It maintains strict censorship of news and information to the public. It also severely restricts workers’ rights, including the right to form independent unions. Although the government prohibits forced labor by children, it requires children to do farm work for no pay.

CULT OF PERSONALITY

In essence, Communism should not be about one person holding ultimate power. It is contrary to the philosophy of Communism. Reality, however, tells a different story. Nearly all societies with the Communist Party in charge eventually end up with a strongman who holds absolute power. How does this happen? Historical experience and cultural setting reveal the circumstances that explain this situation.

During the Cold War, all Communist regimes got to power by means of violence. The Cuban Revolution was similar to the Russian or Chinese uprising. Neither of these nations previously had any experience with democracy or tolerance. Their history was created by the dictators who ruled with an iron fist. That was all they knew and what they expected from another generation of revolutionaries. In this setting, Fidel Castro rose to power in Cuba. To allow people to experience freedom would have been something new, something that basically would have minimized the power of the government. In Communism that does not work.

Another cultural characteristic of the Cubans worked in favor of dictatorship, for Castro as much as for those before him. In Latin American societies, the notion of cooperation has little value. On the other hand, an idea of the need for a strong individual to lead the masses has been deeply embedded in the populace’s mind. A cult of personality develops, where a country’s leader uses the mass media to create a heroic image—in essence, resulting in hero worship.

It is enormously difficult to erase this perception and, as we can see today, Latin Americans still cherish strong “macho” leadership. In such circumstances, it is only natural to embrace Castro, Fidel or Raul, as the President for Life and as a savior of Cuban “prosperity.” This is why the majority of Cubans, particularly the poor masses, complacently accepted yet another dictator.