Cuba: Changes go deep -- democratic reforms

Cubans vote for members of their local Assembly of People's Power.

[For more analysis and discussion on the changes in Cuba, click HERE.]

By José Alejandro Rodríguez, Havana

August 17, 2011 -- Progreso Weekly -- Apart from some exceptions, the powerful international media has ignored a recent Cuban parliamentary bill that would deepen democracy on the island. The reason is obvious: the news is not convenient. The initiative is made within socialist institutionalism, not in terms of the “transition” whose staging is highly anticipated and promoted by certain hegemonic interests in this world.

The idea is to give the green light to an experiment in the new provinces of Mayabeque and Artemisa, which, if they bear fruit, would be extended to the whole country through constitutional reform: the reassignment of the duties of the chairperson of the local Assembly of People's Power and chairperson of the assembly's territorial administrative board to different people, in each municipality and province.

This may seem a procedural trifle, but it implies much more. In fact, it is a critical reconsideration of Article 117, which was incorporated into the Cuban constitution following the constitutional reform of 1992. It gave to one person the chair of both the local assembly and its respective public administrative board.

The bill is part of the revision Cuba is making of the shortcomings in its governing bodies and institutional system to excise many burdens, formalities, unanimous votes and routines that have sapped the operation of the People's Power as the state's guardian of the interests of the people and the nation. Yes, because you cannot rule properly if you're both judge and jury as a result of the duality mentioned above.

A good example is the People's Power municipal assemblies, formed by the delegates of each district, ordinary men and women nominated and elected by neighbourhood residents by direct and secret vote. They are not professionals as in other societies and receive not a penny for their services, which are volunteered. And yes, they often take on lots of problems and headaches by processing the citizens' proposals in the face of bureaucratic sloth and silence.

In the municipal assembly, the chairperson is also chair of the administrative board – something like the mayor in other societies. Until now, the same person who heads the assembly meetings and formulates the citizens' pleas must satisfy those pleas through public and administrative efforts. A conflict of interests.

Unfortunately, this arrangement has strengthened vertical and centralised government in Cuba. Today, amid enormous social and economic changes, our system should be moved toward a socialist democracy that is more participatory, decentralised and horizontal.

In a public document entitled “On the experience to be developed in the provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque”, the National Assembly noted that this step is the result of a thorough analysis by a commission composed of the assembly, the government and the Communist Party.

The document states that the three institutions “took into account, among other things, the deficiencies and shortcomings in the activity of the local organs of the People's Power, especially in the work of the administrative boards and subordinate agencies, the inadequacies in the attention given to the voters' proposals, and the lack of links between the local administrative leaders and the grassroots”.

The document also notes that the institutions “took into account the problems in the functioning of the local organs of the People's Power, the inadequacy of the working relationship between the leaders of the municipal assemblies and the delegates, the limited demands on the administrative goals, and the demand on delegates to perform tasks that are not theirs”.

Among the barriers that limit the exercise of democracy, the commission listed “the commitment of the chairs and deputy chairs to the results of economic and administrative management, a product of their dual responsibilities, causing them, in general, not to maintain proper exigency toward the administration, and to show bias and an administrative approach in their performance”.

In fact, the document calls for an end to the duality, saying that “it makes it difficult for local assemblies to fully exercise their functions, as the chair is absorbed by the administrative and government problems of [their] territory, given their complexity. For that reason, [they] cannot devote the time and attention required by the assemblies, their committees, delegates, and especially the population, whose demands for attention increase daily.”

At the same time, Cuba aims to empower the municipality and save it from the global and centralised approaches put forward for years, by encouraging experiments on local development in several areas of the country. If these spread, they will be the future of the horizontality needed for the human, diverse and eclectic communities that make up the nation.

These experiences, which are already bearing fruit in places like Caibarién, Yaguajay, Martí and others, will promote the self-sustainability of the municipalities through the enactment of integrated local initiatives that will become sources of revenue from the region and for the region. This will allow local governments a degree of financial autonomy and decision-making to address the most pressing community claims, and not always wait for the state budget with an open mouth and the anxiety of impotence.

Of course, this will generate a different dynamics in governance, with voters better informed and demanding about the use of local resources.

Cuba changes toward better and more socialism, and not only in the economy, although some analysts who follow a preset script do not detect the change. And not even the parliament itself – so popular and varied, but so marked by unanimity because of “the perfect harmony that ages the hearts” – can ignore that the biggest challenge is to welcome, promote and bring together the best and most authentic aspects of our diversity around a one-party project. The formula for Vertientes need not be the same for Marianao, but both must save us from inertia.

[José Alejandro Rodríguez is a Cuban journalist. He lives in Havana.]