HAVANA TIMES — They got rid of half of the bureaucrats, drastically cut down on administrative expenses, transformed dozens of government office facilities into homes and now plan to house in one building all the offices for the population’s legal procedures.
These things alone suffice to make one consider the possibility of moving to Cuba’s province of Artemisa, a laboratory where Raúl Castro’s government is testing a form of public administration that is less bureaucratic, more efficient and cheap.
What’s novel in this region bordering with the province of La Habana is the creation of a true provincial government, furnished with enough authority and budget to operate in accordance with the priorities and needs of the local population.
There, the Public Administration Council has been transformed into a local government that coordinates most of the national institutions operating within the province, including those in such important fields as public health, education and agriculture.
This process of decentralization contrasts dramatically with what is happening in the rest of Cuba’s provinces, where local parliaments, devoid of any real “executive power”, merely support what central administrative bodies and State companies decide to do in the region.
Artemisa is witnessing the first steps towards a horizontal administrative model, designed to do away with Cuba’s vertical government structure, a structure through which, for decades, all of the decisions about what to do, even in the smallest and most remote town, were made in Havana.
This pilot experiment seeks to give power back to municipal authorities, to make them responsible for identifying their needs and for administering their budgets, in accordance with their local priorities. These authorities have already been authorized to open bank accounts in Cuban pesos and hard currency.
In addition to this, these institutions will not depend exclusively on their State-assigned budgets. The Artemisa Administrative Council has determined that all companies operating in the region are to pay a provincial tax equivalent to 1 % of their earnings.
That sum will not be insignificant. The province currently supplies much of the Cuban capital with food and has undertaken the construction of the nation’s first Special Development Zone, an area, nearly 500 square kilometers, where Cuba’s main port, a gigantic containers terminal, a refinery and dozens of foreign companies are to operate.
The administrative decentralization of the province seeks greater flexibility for regional policies. Common sense alone tells us that these will be better adapted to local reality than directives thought up in an office in Havana, by people who don’t even live in the region.
In the area of agriculture, for instance, hospitals in Artemisa will now have the authority to decide whether to purchase the food supplies they need directly from agricultural cooperatives, bypassing the government’s intermediary, a body whose inefficiency has even resulted in the loss of entire crops.
The province is also taking bold strides in the encouragement of private enterprise, having already granted over 20 thousand commercial licenses and rented unproductive State businesses out to small business people, so that they may set these in motion.
In addition to privately-run barber shops, which already operate throughout the country, these private businesses include cafeterias and even an amusement park, brought to life by a Cuban émigré who decided to “move back” to Artemisa from Peru, where he worked as a pastry cook for years.
Diunesky Giménez, born in the province, told me that, on hearing about the possibilities that had opened up in Artemisa, he didn’t think twice about it. He invested all of his savings on an inflatable castle, electric bump-cars, an ice-cream machine, a gigantic trampoline, and returned to the land of his birth.
For US $7 a day, he rented a lot on a corner of Artemisa’s central park and transformed it into an amusement park. He has 6 employees and claims he is happy with his earnings. On a Sunday alone, he takes in more than US $100.
Decentralization can have positive repercussions for the population if local needs and priorities are determined at the municipal level, the parasitical bureaucracy is reduced and greater administrative efficiency is achieved, through the creation of a provincial government with real power.
Ulises Guilarte, First Secretary of the Communist Party (PCC) for the province, told us that the main obstacle they have run into is trying to change the mentality of Party cadres, accustomed to all decisions being made in Havana, after decades of such an administrative structure.
According to Guilarte, with the new provincial organizational scheme, the PCC will now focus on political and ideological matters and entrust administrative and regional government functions to the Public Administration Council.
What no one was able to explain to me is what the Assembly of the People’s Power will do now, beyond choosing the Council chairperson. This regional parliament never had any significant degree of power, but, in this future structure, its functions appear to become even less meaningful.