On 26 March Cuba held National Assembly elections in which people had no choice but to ratify the candidates of the ruling party, the only one legally recognised. In authoritarian regimes, elections aren’t used to select governments or express opinions but to provide a veneer of legitimacy, mobilise supporters and intimidate opponents. They’re one of the tools to maintain power. But following a wave of protests in 2021 that saw Cubans shed their fear, turnout was at a record low for a National Assembly election. The era of unanimity is clearly over; sooner or later Cubans will need to discuss how to travel the road to democracy.

The uncertainty that’s the hallmark of a democratic election was absent on 26 March, the day Cubans were summoned to appoint members of the National Assembly of People’s Power, the country’s 470-seat legislative body. A vote did take place that day – people went to the polls and put a ballot in a box. But was this really an election? Cubans weren’t able to choose their representatives – their only option was to ratify the people selected to stand, or abstain.

If each seat already had a name assigned, why even bother to hold an election? Why would people spend part of Sunday lining up to vote? And why would the government care so much if they didn’t?

Voting, Cuban style

According to its constitution, Cuba is a socialist republic in which all state leaders and members of representative bodies are elected and subjected to recall by ‘the masses’. Cuba regularly goes through the motions of elections, but it’s a one-party state: the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC) is constitutionally recognised as the ‘superior driving force of the society and the state’. The presidency is only the second most powerful position in Cuba – it ranks behind the First Secretary of the CPC.

The CPC is indistinguishable from the state, and the party and its ideology penetrate every corner of society. This means the nomination process for elections can be presented as ‘non-partisan’, with candidates nominated as individuals rather than party representatives – but they are all party members anyway.

In Cuba, elections are neither the means to select governments nor a channel for citizens to communicate their views.

Cubans vote in two kinds of elections: for municipal assemblies – the local legislative bodies – and the National Assembly. There are no presidential elections, as the president – who in turn appoints a prime minister – is appointed by the National Assembly. The National Assembly that has just been selected will duly hand President Miguel Díaz Canel a second term this month.

There used to be popular elections for provincial assemblies, but these were eliminated in 2019 and replaced with governors and provincial councils proposed by the president and elected by municipal assemblies.

Candidates for municipal assemblies are nominated by a show of hands at local ‘nomination assemblies’. The most recent local elections took place on 27 November 2022, with a record-breaking abstention rate of 31.5 per cent. What wouldn’t be a remarkable level of non-participation in any real democracy was an embarrassment in a system that’s supposed to deliver consistently unanimous mass endorsement.

According to the new constitution and electoral legislation, National Assembly candidates are nominated by municipal delegates alongside nominations commissions controlled by the CPC through its mass organisations, from whose ranks candidates are expected to emerge, including the Cuban Workers’ Central Union, the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women, the National Association of Small Farmers, the Federation of High School Students and the University Students’ Federation.

The resulting slate includes as many names as there are parliamentary seats available. There are no competing candidates, and as most districts elect more than two representatives, people’s options are limited to selecting all proposed candidates, some, one or none. But all a candidate needs to do is obtain over half of valid votes cast, so ratification is the only possible result. That’s exactly what happened on 26 March.

At the minimum, democracy could be defined as a system where it’s possible to get rid of governments without bloodshed – where those in power could lose an election. In all of Cuba’s post-revolution history, no candidate has ever been defeated.

A different kind of campaign

Unsurprisingly, since there’s no real competition, there are typically no election campaigns in Cuba. Instead, there’s a lot of political and social pressure to participate. People are expected not only to acquiesce by voting – they’re also supposed to show active support, preferably accompanied by some form of public display of enthusiasm. The state needs this to claim it has popular legitimacy.

Abstention is accordingly promoted by the political opposition and democracy activists, with social media campaigns mobilising around hashtags such as #YoNoVoto (#IDoNotVote) and #EnDictaduraNoSeVota (#NoVotinginDictatorship).

Eager to avoid the abstention rate seen in the November municipal elections, the government spared no effort. Against its own legal prohibitions of election campaigns – only the circulation of candidates’ photos and biographies is supposed to be allowed – it ran a relentless assault of propaganda: it made heavy use of social media, put up posters repeating its hashtags – #YoVotoXTodos (#IVoteForAll) and #MejorEsPosible (#BetterIsPossible) – on city walls, sent its candidates on tour, organised cultural and sporting events and commercial fairs and distributed merchandising.

Eyewitness accounts abounded of a voting day characterised by apathy, with no evidence of lines forming at voting places. A number of irregularities were reported, including coercion and harassment, with people who hadn’t voted receiving summons or being picked up from their homes.

The official statement published the following day – which the absence of independent observers made it impossible to verify – reported a 76 per cent turnout. The government presented this as a ‘revolutionary victory’. It might have helped that the electoral rolls had been purged, with over half a million fewer eligible voters than in the previous parliamentary election held in 2018.

But a closer look suggests that abstention is becoming a regular feature of Cuban election rituals – this was the lowest turnout ever in a legislative election – and beyond this, other forms of dissent in the polls are growing, including spoilt ballots.

Government efforts to boost participation came in a wider context of repression, in response to people taking to the streets to express the views elections don’t allow them to. Recent years have seen the biggest wave of protests the Cuban regime has ever experienced. Protests peaked on 11 July 2021, known as 11J, but these have been followed by a steady flow of protests about daily issues – such as food and medicine shortages and power outages – that hasn’t receded. Political and economic frustration is also reflected in the biggest exodus in the country’s history, with an estimated 300,000 Cubans emigrating in 2022 alone.

What elections are for

In Cuba, elections are neither the means to select governments nor a channel for citizens to communicate their views. Rather, they serve a legitimising purpose, both domestically and internationally, for an authoritarian regime that seeks to present itself as a superior form of democracy. They also serve to co-opt and mobilise supporters and demoralise opposition.

Ritual elections just one of many tools the regime employs to maintain power. The 11J protests were a potential turning point because they represented a collective loss of fear, and everything the Cuban authorities have done since is aimed at regaining control by bringing the fear back.

Determined to prevent a repetition of 11J-style mobilisations, the government has raised the cost of protest by criminalising protesters and activists and curtailing the expression of dissent online and offline, backed by a new Criminal Code approved in May 2022 that has turned every protest tactic into a crime. Civil society activists continue to be handed lengthy prison sentences and the number of convicted political prisoners remains above 1,000.

But all this, and the efforts to present a lacklustre election as a glittering victory, only reveal the cracks running through an old system of totalitarian power in decay. In Cuba, only the fiction of a unanimous general will remains.


  • The Cuban authorities must acknowledge the diverse points of view within Cuban society and open channels for their political expression.
  • Democratic states with diplomatic and economic links to Cuba should push for the opening up of civic space and the recognition of opposition groups.
  • Progressive, rights-oriented civil society around the world must side with embattled Cuban democracy activists.

Cover photo by Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters via Gallo Images