Cuba’s Tree without Roots

Fernando Ravsberg

The city hall of Havana’s Cerro municipality. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 29 — The Romans weren’t the ones who invented municipalities as local institutions, though they understood the need to develop political structures capable of maintaining the unity of their empire.

Argentinean law professors Natalia Stringini and Mariana Sconda insist that, “The Roman Empire’s long life and the conservation of its forces were due to the proper organization of municipalities.”

In short, for them to govern, the Romans were forced to decentralize power, creating a political-administrative structure that was able to harmonize the needs of the local community with the interests and unity of the far-flung empire.

But the professors go further to affirm that, “Municipalities had a preponderant role in the political history of the world” and today these still imply a “social and political duality” that serves as a counterbalance to central governments.

Cuba’s government opted for centralization 

The Cuban model — to the contrary — is so centralized that almost nothing is done on the island without the authorization of Havana.  The country was standardized to this degree even to the point of losing many of each region’s particular cultural traditions.

The attempt at creating a system of municipal government based on local institutions of “Popular Power” never caught on.  It may be possible that their composition has a base that’s “popular,” but it’s also evident that these have practically no “power.”

A few months ago I learned that a European NGO couldn’t begin its operation because the benefitting municipality didn’t receive authorization — from Havana — for the organization to open an account in a Cuban bank or receive a donated vehicle.

The phrase most repeated by municipal delegates to their constituencies is that “we haven’t received an answer to our request,” because generally business managers and politicians in the capital city don’t answer those requests – they sometimes don’t even receive them.

I strong local government brings greater citizen participation. Photo: Raquel Perez

This happens because those local structures are the “tail end” of state power, instead of being the “head” of the community.  This was something that the newly formed province of Artemisa tried to correct through a pilot program, which was carried out with the “greatest of discretion”…in case things turned out badly.

Just as the Romans foresaw centuries ago, centralization didn’t bring Cuba greater control – just the opposite.  Since the capital was never able to govern each corner of the country, people began making decisions “on their own.”

The solutions to problems at the local level were established at the margin of those “Roman laws.” In Camaguey they began making cheese clandestinely and in Matanzas marriages of convenience began popping up so that people could live closer to all the tourists.

Families that received farm land for free from the government were prohibited from building homes on these properties, so they erected “barns” for storing tools and equipment (an imperceptible way to start building houses).

Cuban socialism has operated as if all citizens have always defended the same interests.  In this way the unions, civic organizations and political structures each wound up losing their distinct essence…their reason for being.

Negating problems don’t make them disappear

Some laws are implacable and legitimate, but dialectical contradictions of society don’t disappear because a government denies their existence, they simply fade into secrecy and continue incubating, hidden from sight.

Those contradictions are sometimes bitter swigs for the local community.  During the closing of the sugar refineries I saw men and women crying in those bateyes while telling me about “their” freight cars, the scent of “melao” (molasses) and the sounding of the daily break whistle.

Someone should defend those interests and serve as a counterweight to central power.  That’s why when municipalities work well, the country advances toward fuller democracy, increasing people’s participation in decision making.

Cuban society seems to be beginning to understand the matter, as interesting initiatives are now emerging.  One of those has come from economics professor Maria Elena Betancourt, who is proposing that tourism serve as the motor of local development.

She argues that, “Sustainability can only be reached by those jurisdictions that make their own investments.  This goal will be met when they’re able to produce the majority of the supplies and resources demanded by their activities, even guaranteeing their own labor force.”

Municipal governments have been the last on the chain of the central power. Photo: Raquel Perez

If municipal taxes and wages were added to the profits of such sectors, it would mean an increase in the quality of life in those communities, not to mention higher incomes for their residents…without any need to violate the law.

It’s true that there will be unequal regional development and that some Cubans will live better than others, but what’s certain is that the residents of the Varadero resort community always had a higher quality of life than the rest of the country’s citizens.

With financial, administrative and political autonomy, the municipalities could solve many of their local problems.  But the key would be citizen’s participation; otherwise this change would only act to expand the bureaucracy even more.

Greater financial autonomy would mean institutional structures closer to people, with the proper operation of these serving to unleash more citizen initiative to the degree that they themselves defended their rights and transformed these structures into tools for development.

It wasn’t surprising that the report by Argentinean professors Stringini and Sconda begin their article with the words: “It is tremendously difficult to have good government without free municipalities; it would be like a house without a foundation, or a tree without roots.”

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.