Elections in Cuba have two phases: (1) election of delegates to the Municipal Assembly, and (2) election of deputies to the Provincial and National Assemblies. Candidates for both assemblies are nominated on an individual basis and no political parties are permitted to campaign. All elections take place by secret ballot. Suffrage is afforded to Cuban citizens resident for two years on the island who are aged over sixteen years and who have not been found guilty of a criminal offence.
Next to the Communist Party of Cuba, various political parties are illegally active in the country. The most important of these are the Christian Democratic Party of Cuba, the Cuban Socialist Democratic Current, the Democratic Social-Revolutionary Party of Cuba, the Democratic Solidarity Party, the Liberal Party of Cuba and the Social Democratic Co-ordination of Cuba.
Municipal assemblies are elected every two and a half years. Municipal elections are officially non-partisan, but as with National Assembly elections, critics maintain that no candidate can express overt opposition to the Castro government or to the communist system. The last such elections were held on 21 October 2007. Turnout was reported to be 8.1 million voters, approximately 95% of the population, which is less than the last such election on April 17 2005, where voter turnout was 97%.
Cuba's national legislature, the National Assembly of People's Power, has 609 members who sit for five-year terms. Members of the National Assembly represent multiple-member constituencies (2 to 5 members per district), with one Deputy for each 20,000 inhabitants. The most recent elections to the National Assembly were held on 19 January 2003.
Although there is only one candidate per seat, candidates must obtain the support of 50% of voters to be elected. If a candidate fails to gain 50% of the vote, a new candidate must be chosen. So far this has never happened for the National Assembly, because the candidates put forward by the candidacy commissions usually get at least 84% support
Candidates for the National Assembly are chosen by Candidacy Commissions chaired by local trade union officials and composed of elected representatives of "mass organisations" representing workers, youth, women, students and farmers. The Candidacy Commissions produce slates of recommended candidates for each electoral district. The final list of candidates, one for each district, is drawn up by the National Candidacy Commission, taking into account criteria such as candidates’ popularity, merit, patriotism, ethical values and “revolutionary history.”
According to the Cuban Ministry of External Affairs, at the October 2002 elections to these commissions which preceded the January 2003 National Assembly elections, "32,585 candidates were nominated for the 14,949 seats up for election in October 2002 at grassroots assemblies in which 81.7% of the voters participated." At least half of the National Assembly candidates selected must have been previously elected as delegates to these assemblies.
Article #88(h) of the Constitution of Cuba, adopted in 1976, provides for citizen proposals of law, prerequisite that the proposal be made by at least 10 000 citizens who are eligible to vote. In 2002 supporters of a movement known as the Varela Project submitted a citizen proposal of law with 11,000 signatures calling for a national referendum on political and economic reforms.
The Cuban National Assembly Constitution and Legal Affairs Committee tabled the Varela Project citizens' initiative and responded with a counter initiative, the petition for which collected 8.1 million signatures, to request that Cuba's National Assembly amend the constitution to state "Socialism and the revolutionary political and social system...are irrevocable; and Cuba will never again return to capitalism. The National Assembly vote was preceded by a massive march. Critics argue that the alleged signatures of 99.5 percent of Cuba's eligible voters were collected by Castro's neighborhood watch committees, whose evaluations of each citizen's political behavior can make or break people's lives in a country where the government controls virtually all jobs.
In 2006, President of Cuba's National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, stated: "At some moment, US rhetoric changed to talk of democracy ... For me, the starting point is the recognition that democracy should begin with Pericles's definition - that society is for the benefit of the majority - and should not be imposed from outside."
Cuba justifies the existence of only one political party by arguing that the PCC “is not a political party in the traditional sense… it is not an electoral party; it does not decide on the formation or composition of the government. It is not only forbidden to nominate candidates but also to be involved in any other stage of the electoral process… The CPC’s role is one of guidance, supervision and of guarantor of participatory democracy.”
The Cuban government describe the full Cuban electoral process as a form of democracy. The Cuban Ministry of External Affairs describes the candidate-selection process as deriving from “direct nomination of candidates for delegates to the municipal assemblies by the voters themselves at public assemblies,” and points out that at the elections to the municipal assemblies, voters do have a choice of candidates. The ban on election campaigning is presented as “The absence of million–dollar election campaigns where resorting to insults, slander and manipulation are the norm.”
U.S. State Department: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: "Candidates for provincial and national office must be approved in advance by mass organizations controlled by the government. In practice a small group of leaders, under the direction of the president, selected the members of the highest policy-making bodies of the CP, the Politburo, and the Central Committee."
"In 2003 there were national elections in which 609 candidates were approved to compete for the 609 seats in the National Assembly. The CP was the only political party allowed to participate in the elections. A small minority of candidates did not belong formally to the CP but were chosen through the same government-controlled selection process. The government saturated the media and used government ministries, CP entities, and mass organizations to urge voters to cast a “unified vote” where marking one box automatically selected all candidates on the ballot form.
During the year there were elections for nearly 15 thousand local representatives to the municipal assemblies. After the first run-off election, the government reported that 96.6 percent of the electorate had voted. While the law allows citizens not to vote, CDRs often pressured neighborhood residents to cast ballots. According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights, the government blacklisted those who did not vote. Although not a formal requirement, in practice CP membership was a prerequisite for high-level official positions and professional advancement."
"Public political opposition in Cuba is not allowed, and political dissidents are pursued by the authorities. The human rights situation in the island continues to cause major havoc in its international relations. The EU has issued in the past demarches on concrete human rights issues in Cuba, e.g. death penalty, the trial of dissidents, the "acts of repudiations" against dissidents or families of political prisoners and so forth. Public political opposition in Cuba is not allowed, and political dissidents are pursued by the authorities. The Constitution and the Penal Code allow for severe sanctions against exercising freedom of expression if the activities of individuals are deemed to be "counter-revolutionary" or a "threat to national security."
"The nomination of candidates for election to the Municipal Assemblies is done by nominating assemblies, in which all voters are entitled to propose candidates. In practice, however, these district assemblies are usually organized by the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution or the Communist Party, which makes the selection of an opponent of the regime most unlikely."
The Freedom House 2005 report states: “Cubans cannot change their government through democratic means. Fidel Castro dominates the political system, having transformed the country into a one-party state with the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) controlling all governmental entities from the national to the local level. Castro is responsible for every appointment and controls every lever of power in Cuba in his various roles as president of the Council of Ministers, chairman of the Council of State, commander in chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), and first secretary of the PCC. In October 2002, some eight million Cubans voted in tightly controlled municipal elections. On January 19, 2003, an election was held for the Cuban National Assembly, with just 609 candidates - all supported by the regime - vying for 609 seats. All political organizing outside the PCC is illegal. Political dissent, spoken or written, is a punishable offense, and those so punished frequently receive years of imprisonment for seemingly minor infractions.”
In 2002 former U.S. President Jimmy Carter spoke in Havana with support from Human Rights Watch and representing the Carter Center. Whilst calling for democratic change, Carter also stressed that he was not using a U.S. definition of “democracy.” he explained that “the term is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba signed in 1948. It is based on some simple premises: all citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and non-governmental groups, and to have fair and open trials.”
The 2006 report from Human Rights Watch states: “Cuba remains a Latin American anomaly: an undemocratic government that represses nearly all forms of political dissent. President Fidel Castro, now in his forty-seventh year in power, shows no willingness to consider even minor reforms. Instead, his government continues to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, long- and short-term detentions, mob harassment, police warnings, surveillance, house arrests, travel restrictions, and politically-motivated dismissals from employment. The end result is that Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.”
Human Rights Defenders in Cuba from Human Rights First states: “Cuba remains the only country in the Western Hemisphere to reject democracy and effectively outlaw peaceful advocacy for human rights and democratic reforms. Independent civil society in Cuba – including human rights defenders, democracy activists, and independent journalists and scholars – are the targets of constant persecution. The universally-recognized rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly are systematically violated by the State and victims have virtually no means of redress within the judicial system.”
Cuba’s supporters argue that the Cuban system is more democratic than that used in multi-party democracies. The Cuba Solidarity Campaign, a group based in the United States, says: “Electoral candidates are not chosen by small committees of political parties… Instead the candidates are nominated individually by grass-roots organisations and by individual electors… The successful candidate is chosen by secret ballot. The Electoral Law of 1992 stipulates that delegates to the municipal and provincial assemblies and the 601 deputies to the National Assembly are all elected by popular suffrage using a secret ballot… Unlike the case in other states, which invariably criticize Cuba for being ‘undemocratic’, voter turn-out in Cuba is high. In April 2005, 97.7% of electors came out to vote for their deputies to the municipal assemblies.”
Critics argue that whatever the merits of the system for electing the National Assembly, that body is itself a facade for the reality of PCC rule in Cuba. The Assembly meets only twice a year for a few days which is the basis of these beliefs. The 31-member Council of State, in theory elected by the Assembly but hypothetically in practice appointed by the PCC, wields effective state power, and the PCC Politburo is assumed to be the ultimate political authority. Although the Assembly has eight standing committees, they do not exercise any effective authority over legislation. During its biannual plenums, the Assembly is said to play a passive role as audience for various government speakers. Once the Council of State's legislative proposals have been presented, they are summarily ratified by unanimous or near unanimous vote of the Assembly.
"Local elections candidates are nominated in open meetings run by the CDR (Committees to Defend the Revolution) that are closely linked to police and security forces. They report and sanction dissent. Prison terms of 4 years threaten those that openly oppose the regime in that public meeting filled with informants. People not supporting can be threatened with losing their home and jobs."
American political scientist Peter Roman’s work on the subject led him to believe that Cuba’s “grassroots democracy” goes beyond the power to vote freely for one of several candidates representing both pro or anti-socialist positions. Specifically, Cuban democracy includes the right to health, education, and housing. He concludes that at the “people level” democracy exists in Cuba today and that this democracy has been strengthened during the 1990s by conscious decisions made at the top. Roman also writes that the historical origins of contemporary Cuban democracy are the ideas of the centrality of unity and consensus, and the rejection of a distinction between political and civil society. Thus, unanimous votes in representative bodies do not represent, as critics charge, imposition by the PCC, but rather legitimate consensus worked out in lengthy discussion at several levels British political professor Steve Ludlum wrote in his paper “Participation is key to Cuba’s democracy” that “Two models of democracy competed for support in nineteenth century Europe. The one we know is based on indirect representation by professional politicians controlled by party factions. The other model, associated with Rousseau’s concept of the ‘general will’ and made famous by the Paris Commune of 1870”. Ludlum likens Cuba’s local participation to the latter model.
However, critics argue that these local elections candidates are nominated in open meetings run by the CDR (Committees to Defend the Revolution) that are closely linked to police and security forces. They report and sanction dissent. Prison terms of 4 years threaten those that openly oppose the regime in that public meeting filled with informants. People not supporting can be threatened with losing their home and jobs." and "The nomination of candidates for election to the Municipal Assemblies is done by nominating assemblies, in which all voters are entitled to propose candidates. In practice, however, these district assemblies are usually organized by the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution or the Communist Party, which makes the selection of an opponent of the regime most unlikely."
William M. LeoGrande, in a paper written for the Cuba Transition Project at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, wrote of the 1992 election law: "unprecedented openness in debate, not just among party members, but also among the entire populace, so as to foster greater participation and build 'the necessary consensus' for the government's policy response...Eventually, some three million people participated in the pre-Congress discussions", but "When the new electoral law was finalized… it dashed any hopes for a significant opening to alternative voices. The ban on campaigning was retained, and the nomination of provincial and national assembly candidates was entrusted to Candidacy Commissions. Through an elaborate process of consultation… the Candidacy Commissions… produced slates of nominees with just one candidate per seat. Voters only had the choice of voting yes or no. Thus, the election process at the provincial and national levels avoided the possibility of even implicit policy differences among candidates.”
A book which studied the 1997-1998 elections argues that there were multiple candidates in the open nomination assemblies held for the nominiation of these candidates for these seats.