For the first time in decades, Cuba’s municipal elections have involved two opposition candidates. In what has been seen as an important test to Cuba’s political single-party system the opposition candidates made it beyond the first round of voting before conceding. These developments follow an improvement in relations between Cuba and the United States, characterised by US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro meeting at the recent Summit of the Americas in Panama. The candidates were Hildebrando Chaviano, a lawyer and independent journalist, and Yuniel Lopez, a member of the prohibited Independent and Democratic Cuba Party.
Cuba’s political system is categorised as a Communist Republic. The Communist Party of Cuba is the only party permitted to rule in the country, although other parties are allowed to exist. Mr Chaviano and Mr Lopez were running for seats on the municipal assemblies which oversee local matters such as sewage, pest control and street repairs. Those on municipal assemblies also choose half of the representatives in the provincial assembly which, in turn, nominates half of the candidates in the National Assembly. The National Assembly is responsible for the election of Cuba’s Council of State who elect the President. Half of the candidates at both municipal and provincial assembly level are selected by a government electoral commission, which ensures Communist Party control.
Cuba gained independence from the United States in 1902. In the Cuban constitution the US retained rights to intervene in Cuban affairs and supervise its finances and foreign policy. One of the terms of the independence was that the United States are permitted to retain naval bases on the island, which is why the United States still possesses the Guantanamo Bay facility today. In 1959, a revolution, commanded by Fidel Castro, led to the Communist Party replacing the US-backed Batista government. These developments led to the challenging relationship between the two countries until recently where both governments began afresh, attempting to improve their diplomatic relations.
Mr Lopez, 26, stated “I already feel like I’ve won” after getting beyond the first round of candidate selection at meetings of neighbours in the districts. Following the warming of ties between the United States and Cuba, President Obama reportedly said that improvements in relations might bring political change faster than policies such as travel restrictions and trade embargoes. Evidence of this might be seen in Mr Chaviano, 65, who stated that “we have to take advantage of the moment.” State-run media in Cuba has highlighted the two candidates as examples that prove that Cuba’s electoral system is free and democratic.
The improvement in US-Cuban relations might bring important change to both countries. Cuba being open to US trade might promote further economic reforms and, with large Cuban communities, further investment. In January, new travel and trade rules came into place which allowed US citizens to use credit cards in Cuba and US businesses to export some technologies to the country. The relaxation of these restrictions might promote economic growth in Cuba with increased investment. Equally, it might modernise technology as US firms find it easier to export mobile phones and provide internet access in Cuba. In response, Cuba released 52 political detainees which might signal the social and political changes that a more productive relationship with the United States might bring.
The beginnings of possible opposition involvement in Cuban politics might signal a rising support for democracy. Equally, with investment and closer ties to the United States this might improve the Cuban economy whilst also benefitting the reputation of the US. The Cuban government has promised electoral reform, although what these reforms may entail is yet to be announced. The United States appears to be attempting to build anew on the relationship it has had for so long with Cuba and looking to work together diplomatically. Whilst possible effects of US-Cuba ties are beneficial, there might be increasing involvement of the opposition in Cuban politics.
How might political opposition to the government improve Cuba?