Do We Have Accountability?

By Armando Chaguaceda

 Book presentation in Old Havana.  Photo: Caridad
Book presentation in Old Havana. Photo: Caridad

A few days ago a Mexican friend congratulated me for having, within the political system of my country, a practice for holding officials accountable, which is promoted by progressive forces around the world, that we call: rendering accounts.

Immediately I told him that, in fact, all Cuban adults have participated in “accountability assemblies,” which are organized by local chapters of the People’s Power.  And although it has been that way for about thirty years, I felt compelled to reflect on (and explain) the truth of the matter.

Rendering accounts involves complex mechanisms at different institutional levels that require government functionaries to report their actions and justify them.  Poor performance can lead to sanctions.  That sums up the essence of this process of accountability.
On the island, the first problem we face is of a discursive nature.  In our neighborhoods, the local electorate interrogates the local representatives of government and government enterprises regarding solutions to previously registered demands.

The undeniable democratic potential of this process is eroded because it is limited almost exclusively to low-ranking officials and demands almost always revolve around unmet needs for goods and services rather than procedures or matters of wider scope.  Moreover, examples of representatives being removed from their position are scarce.

If we add to all this the corrosive effects of the crisis and the vertical structure of the system (which limits the resources and powers available to local authorities), it is obvious that rendering accounts has little meaning and is just seen as a traditional practice.

Another form of rendering accounts is horizontal (intra-state) by way of agencies legally authorized and capable of taking systematic action, imposing sanctions or even legally challenging agencies or state officials in response to illicit acts or omissions.

This is based on the classic division of powers -legislative, executive and judicial- with its system of mutual counterbalances (a feature missing in the design of the Soviet-inspired Cuban socialist state,) but which also includes supervisory institutions such as auditing agencies, ombudsmen, comptrollers, attorneys and associated bodies.
In Cuba we do not have a Court of Constitutional Guarantees and the announced creation of the Comptroller General of the Republic appears to offer only a partial solution in that direction, given that it will be officials controlling officials, with virtually no citizen input in the fiscal processes.

For its part, the potential of vertical accountability (through elections) is limited since direct election only reaches the National Assembly level.  Furthermore there is the impact of often thoughtless mass propaganda pushing the official line (the call for a “united vote” electing the full slate of candidates) and the impossibility of alternatives campaigns that, without reviving the pre-revolutionary politicking, could reveal the candidates’ qualifications, opinions and priorities to the voters.

And even at the community level, the increasing role of the population and the relatively greater transparency of institutional performance is limited by the persistence of traditional styles of leadership and participation, authoritarian and based on mobilizing the masses.

By the end of our chat, my friend’s facial expression was not quite as happy as it was in the beginning.  But I feel that two ethical standards were impressed on our dialogue that afternoon: not to idealize those processes that we choose to accept and not to mechanically identify words with reality. Both notions are inherently consistent with the Jose Marti and Karl Marx notion of an always revolutionary truth.