Fernando Ravsberg*

The banners carried by Cuban unions during May Day parades do not ask for salary improvements. On the contrary, they call on members to work more and better. Photo Raquel Perez.
The banners carried by Cuban unions during May Day parades do not ask for salary improvements. On the contrary, they call on members to work more and better. Photo Raquel Perez.

HAVANA TIMES — Young independent film producer Claudia Calviño explains to me that the Cuban Film Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC) has become the State’s representative among filmmakers, and that what these artists need is exactly the opposite.

This problem isn’t limited to the film industry. One comes across it in practically all spheres of life in Cuba, for it is part of the model inherited from the former Soviet Union, where all “mass” organizations were directed by the Party.

In Cuba, the secretaries of the country’s all-encompassing union (the CTC) are Communist Party people. This holds for the leadership of the Federation of Cuban women, the heads of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) and even the leaders of the island’s farmers’ association.

Some of these organizations have lost the popular base they once had. In their meetings, debates are few and far between and all directives are unanimously approved, in the knowledge that they are mere formalities, words on paper that very few will adhere to.

Today, many of these organizations are headed by professional State officials, practically obliged, by force of discipline, to carry out all directives handed down by the Party, even when these do not respond to the interests of the workers or population group they ought to represent.

In all of my years in Cuba, I have never seen the CTC demand a salary increase for its members, even though it is one of the key demands made by Cuban workers. I have run into CDRs that have such top-down administrative structures that it is next to impossible to organize an activity involving two of these committees without authorization from “higher bodies.”

The banners carried by Cuban unions during May Day parades do not ask for salary improvements. On the contrary, they call on members to work more and better. Photo Raquel Perez.
The banners carried by Cuban unions during May Day parades do not ask for salary improvements. On the contrary, they call on members to work more and better. Photo Raquel Perez.

This holds true for legislative authorities. Deputies that have been dismissed from the Party also disappear from their seat in the National Assembly of the People’s Power (Parliament), even though they were elected by the people.

Cuba’s system lacks the counterweights that different social sectors would need to apply pressure on the government in order to advance their interests, which are not necessarily the same as those of other sectors and do not form a harmonious whole, as Soviet manuals envisaged.

Each sector of the population has a set of specific demands, and Cubans are hungry for ways in which they can convey these demands to the country’s centers of power and for representatives willing to ensure that they are given due attention.

The institutionalization of the country is one of the aims of Raul Castro’s government. Giving civil society organizations autonomy, such that each can assume, in practice, the role it theoretically has, could be a step in this direction.

Would the government collapse if, during the next May Day parades, Cuban unions showed up with banners demanding a raise in salaries; the Federation of Cuban Women denounced domestic violence by offering actual statistics, or farmers requested the import of tractors to work their fields?

The banners carried by Cuban unions during May Day parades do not ask for salary improvements. On the contrary, they call on members to work more and better. Photo Raquel Perez.
The banners carried by Cuban unions during May Day parades do not ask for salary improvements. On the contrary, they call on members to work more and better. Photo Raquel Perez.

Would all hell break loose if we were to witness the first nay vote against a bill in the parliament, if the CDRs in my neighborhood sued the State companies that tear up our streets or if the Federation of University Students called for open lectures?

Surely no such political Armageddon would ensue, just as there was no mass exodus of Cubans when migratory restrictions were lifted – something which has many people asking why such an unpopular and unnecessary prohibition was maintained for so long.

Re-structuring civil society organizations, handing them over to the people, could be a way of making the base identify more with them and feel better represented, leading the way to a more participative and permanent debate.

A Central American politician was telling me that many of the steps needed to empower civil society have yet to be put in place in his country, while the ladder already exists in Cuba. “The problem is that they only use it to go down.”
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(*) An authorized HT translation of the original posted in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


One thought on “A Kick Start for Cuba’s Civil Society

  • As long as a Castro is in charge, expect very little positive change. Cuba is a dictatorship. By definition, dictatorships do not abide democratic principals.

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