The Cuban Political System in the 1990s: Continuity and Change1

Valdés Paz

Looking at trends characterizing the century’s end, we can see that a new capitalist world order is emerging, clearly more unequal, more exclusionary, and more unstable than the postwar order. The traditional polarization of cold war rivalries has been replaced by a polarization between the developed and the underdeveloped worlds, between weak and strong states, and between nations at the center and those dependent on them. One of those poles is occupied by most of the world’s population and by the majority of nations, which are becoming increasingly marginalized.

In the new world order, almost all the peripheral societies of the world system at the dawn of the 21st century find themselves pursuing the same goals that they have for the past several decades: defending national sovereignty, seeking full economic and social development, and fighting for democracy, and preserving their cultural identities. They are also struggling to preserve those hard-won gains in the face of the corrosive effects of the current global system. Not only will these historical objectives be more difficult to attain in an increasingly adversarial world, but many of the partial victories of recent decades are disappearing under the impact of the forces of economic, political, and cultural transnationalization. Latin America may offer the best example of this process (Vilas, 1994).

Cuba, viewed from the perspective of its own history, faces the same challenges in the late 1990s as it did in the early 1960s, although under different circumstances. The social forces that mobilized around the calls for radical nationalism and socialism in that era are now confronting a new situation -– domestic and foreign -– that poses risks to their achievements and aspirations. However, even at this critical stage, these social forces still have powerful advantages at their disposal: the current Cuban social order, a certain level of development, new social actors, and political power. These and other factors make their goals more feasible.

In the short run, these national forces will have to prove their ability to overcome the crisis -- brought on by the collapse of the Soviet and East European regimes -- and to withstand the new forces unleashed against them. The centrality of the political system to confronting the crisis and these counterrevolutionary tendencies is obvious. That centrality is also pertinent to the larger question of continuity and change in Cuban society in general and in its political regime in particular. The purpose of this article is to contribute three sets of preliminary observations to the debate over that question.

I.  Origins of the Cuban Political System

Cuba’s current political system2 has its origins in a profound revolution with a broad popular base, which, through its various stages -– insurrectionary struggle, anti-imperialist struggle, and class struggle for social change –- created a new type of political power based on a mass movement, fresh leadership, a vanguard political organization, and a new state apparatus.

This new political system, at first a counterweight to the power of the Batista dictatorship and later an instrument of the new revolutionary order, acquired its shape and structure gradually as events unfolded and through the creation of new political institutions and the elimination of old ones. By early 1961 the political system in Cuba had the following characteristics:

  • A newly constituted government entity, the Council of Ministers, with full executive, legislative, and constitutional powers.
  • New local governments led by appointed representatives.
  • Defense and security institutions of a new type: the Rebel Army and the Interior Ministry.
  • Mass organizations: some, such as the labor and student movements, predating the Revolution; others newly formed, such as neighborhood, peasant, and women’s organizations.
  • A vanguard political organization¾called Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (ORI, Organizaciones Revolucionarias Integradas) (Castro Ruz, 1975) -- that unified the various political-military organizations which had participated in the insurrectionary struggle.
  • New national and local leadership consisting of the leading figures of the anti-Batista struggle.
  • The principal leadership of Fidel Castro Ruz.

Taken as a whole, this new political system tended to define itself tactically on the basis of Leninist principles.  These corresponded to the need for unified and concentrated power in the face of a sharpening of political and class struggle, both of which were reinforced by open U.S. hostility to the revolutionary order. When the socialist nature of the Cuban Revolution was publicly announced in April 1961, its basic economic and political traits had already been largely established (Castro Ruz, 1975).

The socialist path chosen by the Cuban Revolution -- an expression of its radical character, of the social forces committed to it, and of its material viability -- gave the new political system both a doctrinal referent (in the Marxist tradition) and a model (in the Soviet version of socialist experience).  At the same time, the political system was defined as one in transition to socialism, that is, as a political order appropriate for attaining certain goals and for the historic conditions of each stage.

From a broader perspective, it is clear that the transition to socialism presupposed models of transition or strategies to overcome obstacles and meet goals in accordance with given conditions. The political system thus became one of the strategies of the model of transition toward a society that is neither capitalist nor communist (Valdés Paz, 1993). In this sense, the political system should be interpreted as one variable of the model, that is, as the means to produce a future society and not as an end in itself.

In practice, and more because of the situation than because of doctrinal premises, the Revolution’s political system has been shaped by the tasks needed to transform Cuban society. These included:

  • In foreign affairs, the defense of national sovereignty and national boundaries, state security, international relations, and international communications.
  • On the domestic front, addressing the tasks of social change consistent with goals, priorities, and new social relations; reproducing the new social order and the political system itself by adapting to the new environment, defending the political system, and reinforcing social consensus; instilling in the population new humanistic norms and values; and building democracy.

To carry out these tasks, and within the framework of successive models of transition over three decades of the Cuban Revolution, there have been at least five successive political systems of transition, all variants of the power structure instituted in the early years. Not until 1975 was the system institutionalized in all its details; with minor changes, this system was still in effect at the beginning of the 1990s. Its major components consisted of the following (Valdés Paz, 1995):

Political Organizations, made up of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC, Partido Comunista de Cuba) and its youth branch, the Union of Communist Youth (UJC, Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas). Their main functions were to organize the political vanguard among the general population; develop and disseminate the political program; mobilize society in support of the goals of the program; arbitrate among different sectoral interests; and maintain consensus.

Mass-based and Professional Organizations, consisting of the group of organizations representing specific sectors of the general population, such as the trade union federation, (CTC, Central de Trabajadores de Cuba), the Association of Small Farmers (ANAP, Asociación de Agricultores Pequeños), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC, Federación de Mujeres Cubanas), the veterans association (ACRC, Asociación de Combatientes de la Revolución), the University Student Federation (FEU, Federación Estudiantil Universitaria), the secondary school student organization (FEEM, Federación de la Enseñanza Media), the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR, Comités de Defensa de la Revolución), and others.

They also included professional organizations linked to the political system, such as the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC, Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba), the Union of Cuban Jurists (UJC, Unión de Juristas Cubanas), the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC, Unión de Periodistas de Cuba), and other similar organizations.3 The functions of these organizations in the larger political system were to represent sectoral interests, to disseminate policy proposals and decisions, to mobilize the population, and to contribute to the creation of political consensus.

State Institutions, such as the representative bodies of Poder Popular, the executive branch, public administration, the armed forces, and the judicial branch. These institutions are recognized in the Cuban Constitution based on the principles of the unity of state powers and the functional independence of each of them. They are closely related in their design and division of labor to the structure of local and provincial government and to the economic planning and management system which had been established in the mid 1970s. These institutions share the functions of all states, both domestically and abroad, in addition to those functions specific to the socialist nature of the state, which include promotion of the new social order, strict regulation of the economic system, social and economic planning, and ensuring social priorities.

Politically Active Population, active in a variety of political groups at all levels.4 This population is composed of the subjects and actors of the political system, mainly the base-level political groups: citizens, members of organizations, veterans, militants, etc. It also includes party and government officials, managers, the political elite, and the leadership.

Leadership of the Political System, which is composed of a vanguard party and a management and decision-making structure, both highly centralized. The Cuban Communist Party’s leadership of the political system was defined in the Constitution, which recognized the party as the “highest leading force of society and the state.” Decision-making structures were generally governed by the principles of democratic centralism, in which, following discussion of different opinions, the will of the minority is subordinated to the will of the majority and each unit is subject to the decisions made by higher-level bodies.5

Mechanisms of Democratic Control, made up of different forms of representation, rendering accounts, mobilization, appeals processes, etc., with the goal of ensuring the direct and indirect control by the general population over the larger system. This political system, granted extraordinary powers, has had to work toward its goals guided by the established strategies, under generally difficult conditions. The result has been an over-extension of the political system and a latent conflict over its limits. On this, three points can be made:

1. The number and scope of the functions centered in the political system not only gave it disproportionate weight in the larger society but also expanded its involvement with the other social systems (institutions and social groups), giving the entire society a pronounced aspect of state control (estatalización), institutionalization, and politicization.

2. The emergence of a state sector of the economy and its expansion into almost every economic activity blurred the lines between political and economic systems, raising the issue of the relative autonomy of each sector.

3. The expansion of the political system into the larger society also blurred the boundaries between the political system and the general population, creating issues for both individuals and organizations regarding the degree of privacy and autonomy, and the extent to which participation in social and political life was voluntary.

Nonetheless, this high concentration of power made it possible for the Cuban political system -- especially the one installed in 1976¾to serve as an exceptional instrument for pursuing the transformation of Cuban society. This system indeed is responsible for many of the important accomplishments of the Revolution. It can claim to its credit:

  • The capacity to implement and sustain a process of transition.
  • An evolution toward greater simplification and decentralization of its structures and functions, including notably the creation and development of local representative government.
  • Maintenance of political and ideological consensus, based on broad support.
  • A high degree of legitimacy.
  • Building institutional democracy and an effective citizenry.6

On the other hand, the political system, which is produced and sustained by the larger society (from which it receives its material support, its social base, and its legitimacy), was affected by the very limitations it had imposed on the other spheres of society, and was sinking under its own weight.  At the beginning of the 1990s serious deficiencies in the system became apparent.  These took the following forms: 

  • Most generally, the political system, whose conservative role had grown more prominent through the 1980s, became a reproducer rather than a producer of society as a whole. There was a disparity between the established legal structure of government and its actual workings (Valdés Paz, 1995).
  • Excessive centralization of functions, particularly in decision-making.
  • Limited development of local government (Valdés Paz, 1993).
  • Inadequate use of state-controlled resources, especially economic, human, and communication resources.
  • A high degree of bureaucratization of the system and increasing levels of bureaucracy among all institutions.
  • Narrowing of consensus.
  • Restrictions on democracy.

We may summarize this section by saying that, in terms of the centrality of the political system to the socialist order, the Cuban case has shown both similarities and differences compared to other experiences of what was known as actually existing socialism. Among the similarities is the tendency to identify socialism, in theory and practice, with state control of social functions. Among the differences, Cuba has managed over time to conserve a notable level of consensus and legitimacy.

II.  The Political System in the 1990s

During the second half of the 1980s, the Cuban Revolution confronted the domestic fallout from the exhaustion of the Soviet-inspired model of transition that had been established in 1976. The political system began to erode, and Cuba faced a situation abroad of growing uncertainty stemming from the reform processes initiated in Eastern Europe and from ongoing capitalist globalization. By the beginning of the 1990s, there was a whole new scenario of capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe and the USSR, with related changes at the international level. A domestic economic crisis resulted, and to a lesser extent, a social and political crisis; at the same time, the situation abroad offered ever greater insecurity and uncertainty.7

The economic crisis known as the “special period” led to new economic, political, and ideological strategies, oriented to re-forging links to the outside world, overcoming the crisis, and confronting U.S. hostility. As a result of these situations in the 1990s and of the policies implemented to overcome them, important changes have occurred in Cuban society. Their relevance to the political system may be summarized as follows:

  • Economic liberalization measures have resulted in a redistribution of economic power which, added to the impact of the crisis on the domestic economy, has severely limited the ability of the state to regulate economic behavior and respond to social demands.
  • The catastrophic decline in living standards of the general population, the growth of social inequalities (especially in terms of unequal consumption and opportunities), and the greater diversity of social actors as a result of liberalization measures, have limited the ability of the political system to represent the interests of different groups and sectors, to control social behavior, and to instill norms and values.
  • The disappearance of a socialist reference-point in Europe, the evolution of domestic and international events, and the bankruptcy of Soviet Marxism have produced a theoretical and ideological vacuum that has affected the capacity of the system’s different political groups to provide leadership.

These situations have led unavoidably to an erosion of the social base of the Revolution, to a narrowing of consensus, and to a proliferation of demands for changes, especially in the economic system, but also in the judicial and political systems. In fact, this perception of a need for change was made clear in public opinion as well as among the political leadership – as in the “Call” for and the discussions in the Communist Party’s Fourth Congress (1991) – and also in policies currently being worked out. The measures implemented in this period have made clear the will to change as well as the moderate and gradual nature of the changes. This reflects the dominant perception among the political leadership about the conditions, the pace, and the scope of such change (Valdés Paz, 1993). These perceptions may be summarized as follows:

a) The attempts to reform socialism in Eastern Europe and the USSR revealed not only the weaknesses of their political systems but also the error of trying to carry out reforms in a sudden manner and in the economic and political spheres simultaneously. In contrast, China’s and Vietnam’s reform experiences would suggest the viability of economic reform within the same political regime, based on popular support.

b) Overcoming the domestic crisis presupposes measures with high economic and social costs for the population as a whole as well as the erosion of established social relations.

c) The threshold of national and state security has declined dangerously in the context of an international situation characterized by the global military dominance of the United States. In fact, the new world order has allowed the U.S. government to intensify its hostile policy toward Cuba in an attempt to provoke a counterrevolution.

d) The first and most basic condition for resisting and overcoming the crisis, and restoring economic development, is the country’s national and political unity.

e) New measures must be able to sustain public consensus and the people’s capacity to mobilize in defense of their interests and of the established social order.

Influenced by these scenarios and perceptions, numerous reforms were introduced throughout Cuban society between 1989 and 1997. Many of the reform measures were designed to ameliorate the effects of the economic crisis; others would guide the county along new directions to make it possible to shore up its hard-won accomplishments and to resume economic development.

These reforms can be characterized as liberalization in the economic sphere and (to a lesser extent) democratization in the political arena, in a combination that, despite its gradual and careful implementation, still represents a real shift in the Cuban transition model. In fact, Cuban society, because of the impact of the crisis and of current policies, finds itself in an irreversible process of transformation into a society that is more differentiated, more acquisitive, more participatory, and more efficient. The challenge will be to navigate those changes while retaining its qualities of equity, frugality, and solidarity.

The measures affecting the political system at the national and especially at the local level include (a) those of a legal and institutional character (based on the 1992 Constitutional reform) and (b) those related to different aspects of the political system (see Appendix).  Taken as a whole, the reforms involve making the system more dynamic, amending the Constitution, instituting a greater degree of decentralization, and decreasing the size of the political bureaucracy. Institutionally, there is greater representativity of all organizations in the political system (particularly the People’s Power assemblies); the military has been rationalized; and local government has been strengthened.

In response to the previously mentioned deficiencies in the system of local government, the changes introduced up to now have allowed it to regain some of its potential for change while decentralizing government functions and, to a lesser extent, decision-making. The legitimacy of local government is strengthened by making its structures and procedures more democratic. However, such changes seem to be insufficient to overcome its deficiencies.

Still more reforms to the Cuban political system will be needed to respond to society’s demands for greater participation and control over the ongoing processes and their effects. The centralization of decision-making in certain institutions – the Communist Party and the Executive Branch – and among other powerholders, will not sufficiently ensure the general interests of society. Further democratic development of the political system should be understood to mean a greater degree of public control over the system’s leadership structures.

III. Continuity and Change

The changes taking place in Cuban society and the reform policies designed to respond to new conditions raise the problem of the direction of these changes and the nature of the emerging society. Both issues are related to the nature of the transition process and to its capitalist or post-capitalist options.

The PCC leadership defines this dilemma as being that of a transition to socialism which has adapted to new conditions and uses new strategies. This approach is based on the belief that without a socialist alternative it will be impossible to attain the objectives of national independence, economic development, democracy, and national identity. The historical record also suggests that only under a socialist regime is it possible to move toward these objectives and to preserve gains already made.8

In fact, the new conditions present an extraordinary threat to the interests of Cuba and the Cuban people. The political system occupies a central place with regard to the challenges posed by the international system and especially by the United States; at the same time, the challenge is to have a domestic political system capable of overcoming the economic crisis and preserving the revolution’s achievements (Dilla, 1995).

This continuity in political power, however, requires significant changes in the transition model and in the political system associated with that model. Such changes should assure, in the foreign affairs arena, national unity, defense readiness, and international linkages. On the domestic front they should ensure the continuity of people’s power and the broadest possible public consensus. 

The hard core of the current political system lies in the exclusion of any kind of political opposition, in the PCC’s leadership of the system, and in the leadership of Fidel Castro. It is not foreseeable that this core will change in the face of current scenarios, especially given U.S. hostility to Cuba and its desire to have a role in Cuban society.  Under a vastly different set of conditions -- including unconditional U.S. respect for Cuban sovereignty and self-determination -- a completely different political system could emerge (Castro Ruz, 1992).

Nevertheless, under present conditions, the continuity of the Cuban political system makes possible a wide range of potential changes that could overcome the system’s weaknesses and prompt a higher level of democratic development (Valdés Paz, 1995). In this sense, the corporative traits of the system’s current structures would not impede a radical democratization of its institutions in such a way as to combine the political unity of the system with the fullest participatory democracy at the base level (Dilla, 1995).

From a socialist perspective as well as in terms of Cuban society today, the major issue in a popular democracy is not the degree of pluralism among its representatives or its leaders, but rather the degree of control that society has over them.

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that without continuity, the Cuban political system cannot preserve the gains made in the process of pursuing its historical mission, but without change, it will be unable to fulfill that mission.


List of Policy Changes in the Cuban Political System, 1990-1997

A.) Legal and Institutional

  • The Constitutional Reform Law of 1992 modified all chapters of the 1976 Constitution and changed more than half its articles.
  • The political and social foundation of the 1976 Constitution was modified radically. The dictatorship of the proletariat and the class nature of the state were dropped. The Party leading the society and the political system was defined as a vanguard organization of all Cubans. The state functions earlier granted to social and mass organizations were eliminated as was their restricted definition (Azcuy, 1995a).
  • Many articles dealing with People’s Power were reformed. Universal suffrage by secret ballot was extended for election of representatives to assemblies at all levels. The functions of People’s Power were outlined and a more independent legal status granted to provincial and municipal levels.9 State administrative agencies were separated from their respective assemblies at all levels. References to democratic centralism and the unity of powers were dropped, and the concept of representativity was emphasized.
  • The secular nature of the state was specified and all references to atheism as official ideology were eliminated. Discrimination on religious grounds was prohibited. The social role of the family was formally recognized.
  • The concept of the state of emergency was defined.

B.) Political Organizations

  • Call to the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), where an extensive critique of the political system was discussed, with the same critique being included in what was termed the “rectification process” (1990).
  • The Fourth Congress of the PCC took place. Party statutes were reformed, emphasizing recruitment of party militants among the masses and allowing religious believers to become party members. Rewriting the Party program was begun. Party work in communities was given priority (1991).
  • PCC party structures were downsized. The Secretariat as a body of the Central Committee was eliminated. Certain departments, sections, and personnel were eliminated at all levels.
  • Important transfers and promotions of party officials occurred at all levels. Party membership increased 15 percent (to 706,132 in 1994). (Gómez Barata, 1994)
  • Congresses of the Union of Communist Youth took place; it was restructured and new leaders chosen at all levels (1993 and 1998).
  • The Fifth Congress of the PCC took place (1997).

C.) Mass Organizations

  • A new mass organization for veterans was established, the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution (ACRC, Asociación de Combatientes de la Revolución Cubana).
  • New national leadership of the CTC, CDR, FEU and FEEM was chosen.
  • National conventions of the trade union federation (CTC), the University Student Federation (FEU), the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), and the Federation of Cuban Woman (FMC) were held.
  • New associations emerged, more than 2,500 in total, and a new sector for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) was created.

D.) The State

  • General elections held under a new election law; People’s Power assemblies elected at all levels (1992 and 1993); municipal elections held in 1995 for all election districts and assemblies, with some 52 percent of the delegates reelected; new local elections held in 1997, with 97.5 percent of the electorate voting.
  • New People’s Power National Assemblies elected in 1993 and 1998.
  • The National Assembly and its bodies continue their work. Legislative committees begin the practice of holding public hearings.
  • Regulations governing the work of the provincial and municipal People’s Power assemblies are approved.
  • The People’s Councils (Consejos Populares) are expanded and developed.
  • Administrative Councils are separated from and subordinated to provincial and municipal People’s Power Assemblies.
  • Some agencies of the central state administration are eliminated and others merged (from 45 to 32). These agencies are restructured and downsized.
  • Many managers transferred; new members elected to the Council of Ministers.
  • Troop strength is reduced in the armed forces. The Ministry of the Interior is restructured with large-scale staff replacements.
  • System of Defense Councils restructured in compliance with new legislation.


Works cited:

Azcuy, Hugo [1995a] “La reforma de la Constitución,” La Democracia en Cuba y el Diferendo con EE.UU. Havana: Centro de Estudio de América.

Castro Ruz, Fidel [1975] Informe Central al Primer Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba. Havana: Editora Política.

________ [1992] Un grano de maíz. Havana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado.

Dilla, Haroldo [1995] “La agenda democrática y la rearticulación del consenso político,” Cuardernos de Nuestra América, 20 (Havana).

Gómez Barata, Jorge [1994] “Partido Comunista de Cuba: crecimiento que desafía,” Granma, 19 November (Havana).

Valdés Paz, Juan [1993] “La transición socialista en Cuba: continuidad y cambio en los noventa,” La Transición socialista, Buenos Aires: Editorial Colihue.

________ [1995] “Notas sobre el sistema político cubano,” La Democracia en Cuba y el Diferendo con EE.UU. Havana: Centro de Estudio de América.

________ [1996] “Poder Local y Participación,” La participación en Cuba y los retos del futuro. Havana: Centro de Estudio de América.

Vilas, Carlos [1994] “Estado y mercado después de la crisis,” Nueva Sociedad, 133 (Caracas).

Other works consulted:

Azcuy, Hugo [1995b] “Estado y sociedad civil en Cuba,” Revista TEMA, 4 (Havana).

Lage, Carlos [1996] “Informe sobre el desarrollo económico y social al V Pleno del Comité Central del PCC,” Granma, February (Havana). Valdés Paz, Juan [1994] “Democracia y sistema político,” Cuba en las Américas. Havana: Centro de Estudio de América.

Valdés Paz, Juan [1996] “Sistema político y socialismo en Cuba,” Política y Cultura, 8 (UNAM-Zochimilco, Mexico City).

Valdés, Nelson P. [1995] “El estado y la transición real: creando nuevos espacios en Cuba.” Presentation to the Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Washington, D.C.


1. This paper summarizes parts of a study by the author currently in progress on the same topic.

2. The term “political system” includes institutions traditionally identified as part of  “political society,” especially state institutions, and organizations of  “civil society,” that are linked to or relate to political society.

3. Just as it affected the previous political system, the revolution also had an impact on the preceding civil society, virtually eliminating almost all its organizations. The reconstitution of civil society has been a much slower process than the reconstitution of the political system. This is a new subject of study.

4. The term Politically Active Population (PAP) refers to the entire population whose members are or could be political actors. A given person can participate in different groups corresponding to his or her distinct social and political roles.

5. According to this principle the minority would have the right to express itself but would not have organizational form or an autonomous existence.

6. Only freedom from poverty, ignorance, insecurity, oppression, etc., make the rights and duties of citizenship effective.

7. These new situations, superimposed on Cuba to some extent, coincided with a stage of development of Cuban society characterized by a politically active population with higher skills and marked differences of opinion and generational attitudes. In other words, people had more demands and proposals to deal with them.

8. Beyond its obvious anticapitalist orientation, socialism – or rather a socialist transition – under current conditions, still needs to be defined. The Cuban leadership has avoided incongruity by calling the current stage of the Cuban Revolution not one of socialist construction, but rather one of struggle for independence and for safeguarding the hard-won gains of socialism.

9. There is still no comprehensive legislation governing municipalities and provinces.