Is “Guided Democracy” in Cuba’s Future?

MONTANA, United States. ─ When Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, the nation had no history of democratic self-government. Indonesia’s governing experience was mostly as a police state under Dutch and Japanese rule.  Similarly, when Cuba regains its sovereignty from the communist regime that has ruled for the last six decades, there will hardly be any memories of the demands and responsibilities of democratic self-government. Like Indonesians, Cubans will have no experience in democratic government.

In his latest book, Upheaval, Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, Jared Diamond notes that:Fundamental to any functioning democracy are…recognition of the right to oppose government policies, tolerance of different points of views, acceptance of being outvoted, and government protection of those without political power.” These aptitudes, necessary for effective self-governance, are unfamiliar to Cubans today.

In Indonesia, President Sukarno, and his successor President Suharto, considered the people to be undisciplined, ignorant, susceptible to dangerous ideas, and unready for democracy. In his autobiography Suharto wrote, “In Indonesian democracy there is no place for a Western-style opposition…Democracy must know discipline and responsibility, because without both those things democracy means only confusion.”

Indeed, Indonesian democracy experienced a high and confused turnover of prime ministers and cabinets in its early days. And, in 1955, the elections were a stalemate when each of the four leading parties obtained a similar percentage of the votes. Indonesians could not find their way to compromise and the country fell into political gridlock. In 1957, President Sukarno ended the gridlock by proclaiming martial law and instituting a regime he called “guided democracy.”

Guided democracy is a government that, although formally democratic, functions as a de facto autocracy. A guided democracy is legitimized by elections, but such elections do not change the state’s policies. The elections may be technically free and fair, but they are cleverly controlled so that people can exercise their rights without being able to change public policy.

The concept of guided democracy was described by journalist and political philosopher Walter Lippmann who sought to reconcile the tensions between liberty and democracy. Lippmann won two Pulitzer Prizes and has been called the most influential journalist of the 20th century. In his 1922 book Public Opinion, Lippmann discusses the cognitive limitations that we face in understanding our sociopolitical and cultural environments and how those limitations influence our behavior. He worried that consent is open to manipulation and can be manufactured.

Sukarno’s guided democracy was an attempt to bring about political stability in Indonesia. He introduced, as a government concept, a blend of nationalism, religion, and communism. The idea was to appease the three main forces in Indonesian politics – the army, Islamic groups, and the communists. In 1957, with the support of the armed forces, Sukarno ended the Western-style electoral system, and instituted his guided democracy with a cabinet representing all major political parties.

Similarly to Indonesia’s experience, a future Cuba will likely have to blend nationalism, communism and democracy into a functioning government. To borrow Jared Diamond’s metaphor, it would be a “mosaic” of disparate political ideas that must find a way to coexist because, “It’s neither possible nor desirable for individuals or nations to change completely, and to discard everything of their former identities.”

Within a country, successive generations often hold drastically different political views as the result of different historical experiences. This is the case for three generations of Cubans in the island, and also for the parallel generations that have lived outside Cuba. They have all had different historical experiences that must coexist.

There is also a relationship between the views of individuals and the characteristic of a nation, and national decisions flow from individual views. Thus, a new Cuban state must be a mosaic of the old and the new to keep the nation from falling apart if citizens do not feel joined by some unifying national belief.

In Cuba, despotism will not necessarily be avoided, nor will good intentions necessarily result in the political success of democracy. This unfortunate reality may yield an autocratic Sukarno-style guided democracy.

Dr. Azel‘s latest book is Liberty for Beginners

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