Accountability in Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

Fixing a street light in Havana. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 10 – In an article published in Trabajadores weekly newspaper, writer Luis Jesus Gonzalez refers to mechanisms of accountability as the “cornerstone of Cuban democracy.”  In that July 28, 2009 feature, he had stressed that these should be the most important political processes in the country.

These mechanisms take the form of Report-back Assemblies (Asambleas de Rendición de Cuentas), biannual meetings in which local delegates (previously elected by community residents) meet with their constituencies.  These neighborhood delegates report on policies implemented by the Municipal Assembly (city council) and steps being taken to resolve problems identified by the community.  Alternately, residents can present new concerns to these representatives at these meetings.

Following these gatherings, the delegate must report to their Municipal Assembly (city council) and to the city administration on the voter’s opinions, as well as on the needs and difficulties the residents have identified.  Likewise, it is the obligation of the delegate to inform the Municipal Assembly or commission that he/she sits on concerning the issues they have been entrusted to address.

However, these Report-back Assemblies —which “should be the most important political process in our nation”— are still weighed down with cold reports that fail to reflect the opinions of the voters on how to solve the community’s problems.

This is something Luis Jesus Gonzalez recognized in his article.  He also made reference to the persistent tendency to quantify the results of Report-back Assemblies through certain indicators (such as the number of people in attendance, the number of neighborhood committees created or even the number of pages in the report).

Water tanks on a Havana apartment building. Photo: Caridad

I wonder if the people who attend these meetings still trust in their function or attend these only symbolically —out of pure formalism— so as not to look bad in their neighborhood)?

These meetings are generally scheduled for the evening, following the news.  After the playing of the national anthem, the residents stand or sit in silence listening to the report read by their elected delegate.

This is what took place at the end of 2008 in the Report-back Assembly in a section of Alamar (an area within the Municipality of East Havana).

When the delegate finished speaking and, as is customary, asked if those present had comments to make, several residents voiced complaints about the water supply, a problem they had had for some time that hadn’t been fixed.

They also raised complaints about the prices at the stores selling in hard currency, the lack of street lighting, problems with repairing apartment buildings whose walls, balconies and stairways have serious cracks and leaks, as well as not being painted in years.

None of these matters was new.  They are problems accumulated over time and the answers from the delegate are evasive with justifications.

It’s fair to recognize that as the meeting took place one of the buildings was being painted and repaired by a brigade belonging to a state company.  When these types of repairs on a building take place the residents of the building must pay the brigade.  According to the total price, in this case each apartment’s share was 500 regular pesos.

One of the persons at the meeting lives in that building and had refused to pay.  He is a retired mason who believes that the repairs were only superficial and that it wouldn’t be long until the plaster would be falling.  His words proved prophetic.  In less than three months pieces of the repaired walls had fallen and the profound cracks were again visible.

The last resident to speak was Pedro, a 45 year-old engineer and former member of the Communist Party.

He first commented on the high prices of essential products sold only in dollar stores.  Giving specific examples, he cited disposable diapers for adults (generally for seniors with urinary incontinence); Pedro had recently bought some for his aging grandmother.

At the time of this meeting, a package of eight diapers cost 8.90 CUCs (about $10 USD) – more than half a month’s take-home wage for the average Cuban worker.  Moreover, the production cost of the product —which Pedro himself had investigated, is 3 CUCs.

The CUC is not the national currency that workers are paid their salaries in.  The exchange rate is 1 CUC to 24 regular pesos (MN).  The average salary of a worker is 350 MN.  Simple math says that a pack of eight diapers costs more than half the average wage.

Pedro’s second concern was related to the campaign waged at that time by the State against water leakages, not only in the streets but in people’s homes.  This wasted water is in short supply in many communities and contributes to the breeding of mosquitoes, the transmitters of disease.

However, to prevent leaks in homes, it’s usually necessary to replace kitchen and bathroom sinks that are broken or in poor condition. But these are sold only in the CUC stores and at astronomical prices.

I won’t refer yet to the answer the delegate gave to Pedro’s concerns because Pedro raised other concerns during the meeting.  I’ll write about these in my next diary entry.