Democracies are closely linked in most people’s minds with elections. Surely, no one would consider a country democratic if its government were not elected. However, there are many features associated with modern democratic society-the rule of law, constitutions, independent courts, political parties, a meaningful opposition, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and so on.

Elections are not a true test of a democracy. They are an instrument, one that can be applied well or badly. The same is true of a constitution. Elections can be meaningless in the hands of tyrants. Seeking the legitimacy conferred by democracy, they steal its most familiar set of clothes. But they never fit. Examples are Cuba, Iran, Iraq during saddam, China.

Elections that do not unfairly restrict the choice of candidates are not necessarily any more democratic. Suppose that many names appear on the ballot but that voters are warned that unless they vote for a particular candidate, they will be punished. Clearly, the fact that there are many candidates to choose from does not necessarily mean that people are free to choose.

Given this muddle, can elections ever be used to meaningfully differentiate democratic from nondemocratic societies? They can, provided we remember that for elections to be free, the voting booth must satisfy the same test as the town square: free elections are held in an environment where people are free to express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm. Put simply, free elections are elections in a free society.

That is why elections are never the beginning of the democratic process. Only when the basic institutions that protect a free society are firmly in place-such as a free press,the rule of law, independent courts, political parties-can free elections be held. A society that is not free but in which elections are held should never be considered democratic.

After defeating Hitler, the United States and other allied occupation forces wisely decided not to hold federal elections in Germany for four years. Had elections been held in 1945 or 1946, the results probably would have undermined efforts to build German democracy, something those who hope to help build democratic societies in Afghanistan and Iraq should have kept in mind. There are still significant portions of these populations afraid to express their views.

The goal for the future of Cuba to advance democracy once the present regime is overthrown will be better served by worrying less about how quickly elections are held and more about making the atmosphere in which they will eventually take place as free as possible. Of course, free elections can bring nondemocrats to power, as was the recent case in Venezuela, and in Germany in 1933. These cases just prove that democracy must always be protected. Dictators do not depend on their people; their people depend on them.Cuba’s tyrant, Fidel Castro, has remained in power for 47 years despite impoverishing Cuba. To him, what is important is not improving the lives of the Cuban people, but controlling them.

The idea that Cubans are incapable of democratic self-rule or have no desire for it has had a long pedigree in Western diplomacy. Confrontation with Cuba’s dictatorship, it was believed by many, would only make things worse. Better to work out a compromise that would bring order and stability to the region than to engage in a reckless brinkmanship that had no chance of success. How wrong! No moral clarity in the policies regarding Cuba. And the suffering of the Cuban people? And the suffering of the people in Latin America ?

We are told that freedom cannot be imposed from the outside and that any attempt to do so will only backfire, further fanning the flames of hatred. This is a false premise. All peoples desire to be free. Cubans desire to be free. Freedom in Cuba will make Latin America, and the world, safer. I am convinced that the United States, and all democratic nations, has a critical role to play in returning Cuba to democracy and freedom.

There are dangers involved in the transition to democracy. This transition can be long and arduous: the transformation of a fear society to a free society, where the basic right of dissent is protected, to a fully democratic society, where the institutions that protect dissent and sustain freedom are well established, can take a few years. However, the discussion should be on how democracy can best be established in Cuba and not over if democracy should never be established at all.

If Cuba’s tyranny were to be transformed into a genuinely free society, the world would be more secure. The entire Latin America region would achieve stability, freedom, and prosperity.

Do Cubans really desire freedom? Of course. Is Cuba unfit for freedom? Cuba is fit for freedom. Is Cuba unfit for democracy? Cuba is fit for democracy. Given a choice, all Cubans prefer a free society to a fear society.

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