Were criticisms of participation by dissidents in the "elections" organized by the regime justified? Did the platforms prepared by dozens of independent candidates, in an unprecedented fashion, take full advantage of the opportunity? As the next stage is approaching, and the chances for a citizen critical of the regime to occupy a position in one of the echelons of the "Popular Power" are finally gone, it is time to take stock and analyze the experience, with a view to future processes.
"A democratic construction entails respecting all opinions," says Julio Antonio Aleaga Pesant, executive secretary of the Candidates for Change (CxC) platform, in response to those who disapproved of the independent candidates. Critics "must demonstrate that there is another pragmatic, credible and objective way to democratize the country. That is where they come up short," he says.
"The Latin American Left understood that armed struggle was not the way. They suffered much more than we did before embarking on the electoral route. It is long. When it comes to democratic development, there are no shortcuts," he argues.
Boris González Arenas, a member of the #Otro18 platform, categorically denies that the detractors of independent candidates were right. "They lacked alternative," he says. "#Otro18 not only succeeded in providing education in electoral processes for those who participated, but also for our critics, who had to be informed in order to oppose us."
In his opinion, initiatives like his platform and CxC even spurred the regime "to implement educational mechanisms regarding the Electoral Law, such as the 'Cuban Electoral System' section in the official newspaper Granma.”
Candidates face barriers
Complaints from citizens who tried to run independently show that State Security forces and the Communist Party worked hard to prevent them from exercising a right recognized by the Constitution and the Electoral Law, and to ensure that none of them became delegates.
"The original plan was for 10 to run, but in the end none of them made it to the last day, because State Security's actions against each of the candidates began months earlier," explained Eliécer Ávila, leader of the Somos+ movement.
Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a spokesperson for #Otro18, stated that 11 independent candidates of that platform "were tried, prosecuted or imprisoned".
"In the end, 53 candidates out of 182 ran," says Cuesta Morúa. The other 129 were unable to, due to police repression, intimidation. "
Did the platforms fail in their strategies with the candidates? According to Aleaga Pesant, the main problem was the expectations generated. "Some said that they could win, but that was far from the reality."
Dissident José Díaz Silva sought to run on the #Otro18 platform. He thinks that Cuesta Morúa jumped the gun by ensuring that there would be 10 candidates.
Only one "managed to be nominated and elected, but they literally stole his nomination," said Cuesta Morúa. "It was Michel Piñeiro Hernández, from Aguada de Pasajeros, Cienfuegos."
According to the #Otro18 spokesman, at the Nomination Assembly the residents proposed Piñeiro Hernández as a delegate from his district. "The majority voted for him. The polling station was somewhat stunned, because he wasn't the candidate they had planned. They did something illegal: they repeated the vote. Michel was nominated again, "but in the minutes of the meeting, his name did not appear."
"The other candidate who appeared in Michel's place was never nominated. The residents cried foul. Michel and his wife went to protest this incident before the Electoral Commission, and they were each slapped with a fine of 1,500 pesos, for the alleged crime of 'disorder'."
Díaz Silva recognizes that during the process #Otro18 was better known off Cuba than on it.
Boris González agrees, but believes that the phenomenon "has value in itself. For us, the dismantling of the political culture did not begin in 1959, but in 1952, with the coup d'etat by Fulgencio Batista. It would be difficult to put it back together under democratic conditions, and to do so under the current dictatorship gives one an idea of the merit of our efforts."
The danger of introducing yourself to your neighbors
Most initiatives acknowledge that their candidates could speak little with the voters. "But we all had people willing to vote for us," says Díaz Silva.
"Talking with voters, beyond the interpersonal exchange with one's fellow citizens, is not relevant under a regime capable of doing the following: Rolando Columbié had been a delegate in Antilla, Holguín, but had given up. A father, a worker for 35 years, he never had problems with the Justice system. He learned about #Otro18 and decided to run as part of the platform. He was promptly prosecuted for a theft that never happened," says González Arenas. "A shirt with his smell was presented as evidence, even though it was too small for him. He lost his job and was sentenced to six months of house arrest."
Nevertheless, Cuesta Morúa says that #Otro18 prepared a "roadmap" for its candidates, which included "introducing yourself to the people and telling them that you wanted to be their voice, not promising solutions to their problems, but rather to voice them."
"For us," adds Cuesta Morúa, "the point was not for the candidates to run just as a reproduction of the model, but rather, for them to stand for something," such as the principle that "the entire election mechanism be free, direct and confidential."
"Many of the candidates were able to work with their constituents, introduce themselves, make themselves known, say what they intended to do," he says.
Eliecer Ávila complains that "they told you one thing before and quite another as the day [of the Nomination Assembly] approached. "It was evident that State Security visited everyone close to the candidates, and threatened them with the usual: the university studies of their children, their businesses. That worked in most cases."
Candidates and advertising
As for disclosing or keeping the names of the candidates secret before voting, the platforms followed different paths.
"We made them public," says Eliecer Ávila. "Maybe it would have been better not to, but then you ran the risk of the voters not knowing you enough, and nobody nominating you."
"When the names are released, the political police comes and arrests people. At CxC we prefer to protect them, "says Aleaga Pesant.
#Otro18 published a list of candidates, but there were some who preferred to remain anonymous. "We had to respect their decision," says Cuesta Morúa.
However, "for me the best strategy was to publish them, because we have to be transparent. It could not appear that we were conspiring, when we were only using institutions protected under the law."
Several #Otro18 candidates were interviewed by the independent press before the Nominating Assemblies.
"We did not have to do anything hidden, as it was a right that the Constitution recognizes," says Díaz Silva, who gave statements to DIARIO DE CUBA at that phase of the process. The dissident was arrested one day before the Nomination Assembly of his neighborhood, and released four days later.
DDC tried to interview others who #Otro18 identified as candidates, but who denied it.
"What basically happened was that some of these candidates, who were not many, were wary of their intentions. The intentions of some of these journalists who came were not entirely clear," says Cuesta Morúa. "We told them after this that the idea was for them to enjoy some visibility and communicate their visions to journalists. It was a lesson about the need for publicity and that this should be clear."
The unknown candidate
In the midst of the persecution of independent candidates and the citizens who supported them, only the journalist Henry Constantin got documented proof of the repression, by recording an audio of what happened at his Nomination Assembly when he tried to run.
"It's not the only evidence: there is testimony, a sentence like that in Columbié, and an activist imprisoned, like José Rolando Cásares Soto, are also evidence," says Boris González Arenas.
"We organized the Cuban Electoral Defense Commission, which provided an account of what was happening. Recording is dangerous Arrests and violations of the electoral process were documented. We presented this information to the embassies of the United States and the European Union," says Aleaga Pesant.
"Many of the candidates who managed to run were already well known in the community, which means they were known by the authorities, and at almost all of these assemblies the authorities were present. They were already taking a very great risk," adds Cuesta Morúa.
In his opinion, in the case of Henry Constantín, it was pivotal that "he was an unknown candidate" even inside the platforms. "He was independent, independent" and that would have favored the 'surprise' factor.
"A political exercise with a view to the future"
Cuesta Morúa affirms that #Otro18 made 52 observations at the Nominating Assemblies and 132 in the municipal "elections", although "not all the observers we had planned could do the work, because there was also repression" against them.
According to the spokesperson for# Otro18, the turnout "was much less than usual." For example, at School 149 in Veguita de Galo, in Santiago de Cuba, the observers found that "they induced the elderly to vote." In other places "they verified that blank ballots were later marked."
According to Cuesta Morúa, the participation by independent candidates in the process is still "a strategic victory." #Otro18 worked to "leave a platform established across the country and seek democratic changes from below," he argues.
"CxC did not think it could actually win, but it was a political exercise with a view to the future," says Aleaga Pesant. "In 2015 the opposition did not participate in the elections. But now a significant portion of the opposition and society see elections as a path."
For Eliecer Ávila, the process made clear "that the communists were not going to allow real competition, hence the historical importance of the experiment."
"Now - he emphasizes - they cannot claim that in Cuba any citizen can run for election, as they have ceaselessly repeated before international organizations."