Elections in Cuba Before the Revolution

In the first elections called in Cuba after the end of Spanish domination, seven percent of the population voted.

By: Ciro Bianchi Ross

Email: ciro@jrebelde.cip.cu

2007-10-03 | 15:15:19 EST

General elections will soon be held again in Cuba. The people come forward and choose their representatives who only take office if they receive more than fifty percent of the vote. They must regularly account to the electorate and may be removed at any time during their mandate. Here, where elections are financed by the government, registration on the electoral roll is free and automatic, and there is absolute transparency in the entire voting and counting process, with children and youth from primary and secondary schools "guarding" the ballot boxes on the day of the elections.

It was not always this way, of course.

The Cuban electoral scene was very different before 1959, when elections were a farce, to a greater or smaller degree. In 1916, election fraud obliged the opposition to take up arms against a government, which sought to hold on to power at any cost; while in 1954 the sole opposition candidate to participate was imprisoned only two days before the election, after suffering much misfortune and abuse. A lot could be written about these events, but today I would like to focus on the island’s very first elections.

Only seven percent of the population voted

In the first elections that were called in Cuba after the end of Spanish domination, seven percent of the population voted. The election to elect municipal officials was held on June 16, 1900, under the aegis of the government run by a US administrator. Of the 1,572,797 inhabitants on the island at that time, 150,648 were registered to vote and of these 110,816 went to the polls.

It was not that people did not want to vote, but that the majority was prevented from doing so by law. In that election, entitlement to vote was based on one being 21 years or over, knowing how to read and write, and possessing goods worth no less than 250 pesos. Thousands of black and white Cuban poor were thus deprived the vote. Women too were not allowed to vote at all. However, those who had fought in the Liberation Army were given the right because it was deemed too scandalous to deprive them of the vote after what they had done for their country.

The Cuban Revolutionary Party, founded by José Martí, which had encouraged and fought the war of independence, had dissolved. Three main political organizations that would participate in the elections were the Republican Party from Las Villas which grouped together the most fiery independence supporters; the Cuban National Party from Havana which proclaimed the same ideals, but with lukewarm force; and the Democratic Union Party which gathered together a mix of independence supporters, those who had empathized with Spain during the war, and even supporters of annexation by United States. This last would garner the votes of many of the Spaniards who had already been granted Cuban citizenship. A minor party would also contend - the Republican Party of Havana, which had nothing to do with that of Las Villas.

The sympathies of the U.S. administrator, Leonardo Wood, lay with the Democratic Union, but the number of its members was so low that it decided not to contest the elections. Wood regretted its withdrawal, but this did not deter him from imposing - with the use and abuse of his authority - the candidates who suited him.

Universal suffrage

Under the same educational and material restrictions, elections were held on the third Saturday of September, 1900, to elect delegates to the assembly that would endow the Republic with its first Constitution. The National Party sought to run Máximo Gomez, Commander of the Liberation Army, expecting that the prestige of his name would constitute in and of itself a factor for success, but the old warrior did not accept the nomination. It was in this election that the country’s first coalition of parties took place when by survival instinct the Havana Republicans and Democrats united when faced with the certainty that the National Party would sweep into power if they remained separate entities for the election. Even so, the National Party took the capital although the Republicans gained Las Villas and Matanzas. Elsewhere in the country local coalitions won the day.

However, the elections in Havana were so fraudulent that Juan Gualberto Gómez, who was elected by the eastern part of the nation, in his first speech before the Constituent Assembly challenged the behavior of the Havana delegates - a challenge that was rejected.

A problem for the new Constituent Assembly of 1901 was the issue of the vote. It was known that Wood favored limited or restricted suffrage based on education and wealth, but one of the delegates proposed universal suffrage. Another opposed this, but Manuel Sanguily jumped into the ring to say that he could not conceive that a single member of the assembly could oppose such a right for their compatriots: at least men over 21 - not women. Thus the assembly approved the proposal and consigned it into the new Constitution.

The elimination of Masó

Then came the presidential elections of December 31, 1901. Faced with the refusal of General Máximo Gómez to run for president, another pro-independence general, Bartolomé Masó, was presented as a sure fire candidate. He had been a front line combatant in the Ten Years War (1868-78) and the War of Independence (1895-98) and was clear in his condemnation of U.S. military intervention. He therefore did not enjoy the support of Wood, no matter how much the US administrator swore that he was absolutely impartial. He was, then, to oppose Masó, that the candidacy of Tomás Estrada Palma was launched. The people inclined towards Masó because he embodied the separatist spirit against intervention and was a strong opponent of the Platt Amendment which was added to the 1901 Constitution giving Washington jurisdiction over Cuban sovereignty. The people distrusted of Estrada Palma since he was the candidate of the United States and because he had spent 25 years in exile and had lived the last 20 years in the U.S. where he still resided.

It was thus that Máximo Gómez, whose support would turn out to be decisive for any of the candidates in play, travelled to The United States to meet with Estrada Palma and returned to give him his support. The Republicans of Las Villas and other nationally known figures followed suit and Estrada Palma practically had the presidency in his pocket.

Even so, to be assured of this, Wood did not include any Masó supporter in his Oversight Committee Masó protested, first to the administrator and then to Washington, but its complaint was ignored and any change refused. Seeing he had little chance of success, Masó directed, on October 31, a manifesto to the nation that positioned him firmly against the foreign occupation. The mayor of Havana, who expressed sympathies for Masó, was fired by the US authorities, and the protests of Masó’s followers went unheeded and their leader was imprisoned. Estrada Palma took the election unopposed.

Despite the fact that Estrada Palma lacked an opponent and controlled the Oversight Committee, the U.S. authorities employed force to ensure that Masó’s followers could not even claim second place. Up till then in all the surveys carried out by the newspaper, La Discusión, in ascertaining the most popular candidate as the first president of the Republic, Estrada Palma had always been the least favored. The last of these polls gave Estrada Palma 305 points and 1,529 to his rival. But the resulting reality was quite different. Estrada Palma took the first presidency not because the Republicans and National Part supported him, but because Washington made him its candidate.

The year 1954

The elections of 1954 were grotesque. After the coup d'etat of 1952, Batista aspired to the presidency of the Republic and only Grau San Martin, with the Authentic Party, agreed to participate in the elections as the opposing candidate. But he was not able to, because the dictator was willing to win the elections at any price and had the Rural Guard at his service in all the provinces. In Matanzas alone, an area that Batista considered lost, more than 500 Grau followers were arrested just days prior to the elections. The soldiers ransacked the housings of the opponents and seized all of the occupants’ identification papers, it was a vandal’s banquet. Prominent opposition candidates were robbed of their vehicles; had their tires punctured or sand poured in the gas tanks.

Two days later the elections took place with Batista as the sole candidate. Soon after, with an ordinance, the dictator validated the fraudulent electoral process and almost at once gave amnesty for all the crimes committed in the elections by his supporters who, despite everything, had to inflate the number of votes to achieve victory.


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