Local Development and the Empowerment of Citizens in Cuba

por Maya Quiroga

No water. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Imagine you had the chance to decide, at a neighborhood meeting, how part of the public budget should be spent to improve and transform your community. Imagine your apartment building was governed by rules that all tenants knew and followed to the letter.

All of the above is feasible, it is no pipe-dream. That is how neighborhoods, buildings or municipalities are organized in many countries around the world. These mechanisms for citizen participation, which first saw the light of day in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the 80s and early 90s, are known as “participative budget” systems.

Some attempts at gathering people to have them decide on the use of the city’s resources have been made in Cuba, but, to date, all such exercises have not gone beyond the experimental stage.

Spanish sociologist Carlos Garcia Pleyan is among those who support giving citizens a voice and vote to guarantee local development and overcome local problems. Through several lectures and articles, Garcia Pleyan has spoken about the need to “rethink the relationship between government and citizens and introduce participative planning and budgets.”

Today, the island faces much dissatisfaction and many inadequacies and deficiencies in terms of responding to citizen demands, expressed by municipal representatives who, denied a local budget, cannot solve all of the pressing problems that have accumulated over the years. This is yet one more reason to encourage the participation of citizens in the transformation of their communities.

Cellphone repair shop. Photo: Juan Suarez

Today, it is next to impossible for the State to take on roles that are shouldered by city councils in other countries, to be wholly responsible for such things as repairing sidewalks, painting and refurbishing multi-family buildings and other tasks.

Many factors affect daily reality at the community level. What is actually decided at the level of municipal or provincial governments? Will Havana be granted its own city budget or will the country’s ministries continue to decide how to contribute to the development of the capital? These are some of the questions posed by Garcia Pleyan.

Cuba’s Non-State Sector

Following the approval of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and Revolution on April 18, 2011, new spaces for and challenges to territorial planning arose.

Self-employment, approved in Cuba through Decree Law 141 of September 1993, gave citizens the opportunity to develop “private businesses” that could have an impact on local development, while contributing to the recovery, maintenance and transmission of trade-related know how to the new generations.

In this connection, Garcia Pleyan asks: “By passing administrative functions from State to cooperative hands, have companies truly become empowered in terms of profits? This process has prompted debates, essays, changes of course, steps backwards. Is there any consensus regarding the decentralization process?”

A Message to Young Architects

A new stage beset by a series of external variables, which include everything from the issue of prices to politics and culture (and their broadest senses) has emerged in Cuba following the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States.

Photo: Juan Suarez

Garcia Pleyan calls on future architects on the island to use a prospective methodology (applicable to buildings, neighborhoods and even entire cities) and apply it to horizontal urban development and the real estate sector to explore this uncertain future.

“Explore the future and prepare for what’s coming. Only if you’re well prepared will you be able to undertake projects through alliances with multidisciplinary teams.

“In today’s world, nothing is built before a financial, architectural and urban study that takes profitability into account has been conducted. We should not give up on the idea of building upwards, but you must think within Cuba’s socio-cultural and economic context.

“Go beyond the physical, architectural and aesthetic elements and introduce other ingredients into the mix, such as urban legislation, economics and sociology. Part of the job is being well informed. You must know about lot rent prices, about the law, urban regulations and the value of land. For instance, you should know that a well-lit park raises land value,” he explains.

The renowned academic, author of the article La Habana: una ecuacion imposible? (“Havana: An Impossible Equation?”) insists on the issue of citizen participation. “It is very important to collect everyone’s opinion before starting a project. This demands the decentralization of State functions, such that higher levels of family participation can exist. This is far more profitable and urgent under collective ownership conditions such as those that exist in Cuba,” Pleyan concludes.

The future will have the last word, but only at the neighborhood level will we find the answers to the problems faced by the community, through serious strategic planning that incentivizes people to work in those activities that the collective both needs and benefits from.

2 thoughts on “Local Development and the Empowerment of Citizens in Cuba

  • As a native born Cuba I would love to see an open and free cuba However, not at the risk of being stripped of our dignity and Culture..The Euro brought nothing to my pais but slavery,`and indignities..Sure our leaders are not perfect and we all want to be better What now? Find me at facebook lets dialough

  • I think it would be a great beginning to improve conditions that seem to be pretty tough in Cuba if your post was taken seriously Maya. It’s your country and a great group of fellow citizens amongst you.

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