Citizenship and Power in Today’s Cuba

Fernando Ravsberg

“My authority comes from you, and it ceases before your sovereign presence” — Jose Artigas

Guanche assures that a large part of citizen participation in Cuba is only advisory. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, Dec 15 — While reading a scientific analysis of the institutions of political power in Cuba, I was reminded of a phrase by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, who — from his perspective as a filmmaker — defined socialism as a “good script with bad staging.”

But I’m not going to talk about the ideas of the director of Strawberry and Chocolate rather those of law graduate Julio Cesar Guanche, who is the author of numerous essays and research papers as well as an advisor to Havana film festival president Alfredo Guevara.

Obviously, the researcher is a voice on the left but he manages to evidence substantial critical objectivity in his study “Citizen Participation in the Cuban State,” (Spanish: La participacion ciudadana en el Estado cubano), which analyzes the Cuban government’s original aims and its subsequent application in practice.

Guanche explains that institutionally the Cuban political system offers two opportunities for citizens’ participation: elections and popular referendum, asserting that the latter has never been promoted among the base.

Very few of the important decisions of the past 50 years were made by popular referendum. In some cases consultation discussions were held, while others were decided with the applause of a million citizens standing in Revolution Square.

The lack of referendums is more serious with regard to some characteristics of the Cuban electoral system, particularly the prohibition against any campaigning. Candidates are only allowed to publish a short biography along with their photo.

Guanche proposes a constitutional control body that defends citizen rights. Photo: Raquel Perez

Thus citizens vote for people and not for political agendas. They choose without knowing what the candidate thinks about the issues of interest. Instead of casting votes that reflect their opinions, “trust is handed over to someone else — the representative — to make the decision,” says Guanche.

Another problem of representation is the Candidacy Commission, which decides who will run in elections. The party says it doesn’t nominate candidates, but the truth is that its members fill 90 percent of the seats, leaving very little room for other citizens.

Guanche points out that this access to power should be universal, which means affording “the possibility of reflecting popular opinion in government decision-making while respecting the legal system, regardless of whether they are different than the government’s position.”

It’s true that there are non-institutional mechanisms, such as the debates within social organizations, but Guanche concludes that these are only “advisory” since citizens have no real power of “decision, control, evaluation or revocation.”

I remember in the early 90’s there was one of those national consultations, and at all of the meetings in which people participated, they called for the reopening of the high schools in the cities [as opposed to the school in the countryside program]. Notwithstanding, the rural schools continued for 15 more years without anyone giving the least explanation.

More recently, public input was made concerning the agenda of the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party, but no information was later given as to the opinions and criticisms collected. In this way, Cubans must only “have faith” that the authorities will take them into account.

Guanche maintains that the Cuban parliament should have a space for other currents of thought than the government's. Photo: Raquel Perez

It’s true that only party members have voices and votes in party congresses, but in the case of Cuba, citizens deserve greater opportunities for participation because it is a single party that decides the course of the entire nation.

Another important aspect of Guanche’s analysis is the need to create a constitutional body “for the defense of rights, which would invoke the supremacy of the constitution in the face of the violation of rights or legal contradictions.”

This would serve as an institutionalized control mechanism so that the powers of the state could not violate the laws. It would also empower citizens to file a lawsuit if they were, for example, prevented from entering a hotel, denied the chance to move to the capital or refused any other constitutional right.

The danger presented when there are no mechanisms of control over the government is that it ends up standing above the law and marginalizing the only sovereign power that a genuine nation can possess: its own people.

This is a principle that theoretically everyone accepts, but in practice governments go to war, “save” banks or limit the freedom of travel without consulting the people. Acts are staged while forgetting the spirit in which the play was written.

Guanche’s work is 120 pages long, yet its depth cannot be synthesized in a post. I’m only trying to pique the interest of my readers because — regardless of how right or wrong he may be — I believe his work represents an objective and thorough analysis.

Let’s hope that it will be useful to deputies and delegates, because they are the ones who should resolve some of these contradictions. They are the ones who must ensure that the representation they were entrusted to provide is, above all, the sovereign mandate of the people.

An authorized Havana Times translation of the Spanish original published by BBC Mundo.