People’s Power in the Organization of the Cuban Socialist State

Jesús Pastor
García Brigos

The municipal, provincial and national assemblies of People’s Power constituted in 1976 replaced the provisional institutions of government that had operated during the first years of socialist construction in Cuba.  These Organs of People’s Power (Órganos del Poder Popular or OPP) were designed to provide real, regular, and more systemic and systematic forms through which people could participate in running the society.

The exercise of democracy through elective state bodies is a necessity of the socialist model of development.  In Cuba, this step was delayed after the triumph of 1959 and through the early years of declared socialist development, by specific problems the revolutionary process confronted and by the rapidity of the changes, which sometimes caused organizational forms to disappear almost as soon as they had begun to function.

The real and effective participation of the people of Cuba in matters of state occurs basically through the OPP. The word “basically” should be stressed because an important factor in Cuban development both before and after the establishment of  the OPP has been the existence of mass organizations (non-governmental organizations) that play an important role in state functions, beyond the role that the organized people have always exercised, through other channels, in national defense.

As modified in 1992, the OPP "the representative bodies of the socialist state that is the Republic of Cuba" are structured in the National Assembly, supreme body of  state power and the only constitutional and legislative authority of the republic, with its Council of State, and in the provincial and municipal assemblies as the highest local organs of state power and government at their respective levels.  Thus, the OPP are the representative institutions of the Cuban state.

The members of the People’s Power assemblies "National Assembly deputies, and provincial and municipal assembly delegates" have a more authentically popular mandate than in any other democratic model because of how they are elected to their positions and because of the ties they develop with their constituents and, in general, their place in everyday life.  A very distinctive element in the Cuban system is that these elective positions are unpaid, entailing no privileges or personal benefits of any kind.  They are taken on in addition to other work and social obligations.  This implies a high level of individual altruism and a spirit of sacrifice.

But changes have been proposed for the OPP, and important changes have occurred in recent years.  These changes have been motivated, and their practical implementation made possible, by the development of Cuban society, and not, as some argue, as a result of the crisis of the Special Period.  Here, we seek to analyze what we consider the most significant changes affecting the mechanisms of people’s participation and the organs of People’s Power.  Basic to these changes is the effort to strengthen the link between rulers and ruled, between voters and delegates.  These changes are:

-- the establishment of the  People's Councils, -- elimination of  Executive Committees at the provincial and municipal levels, -- change in procedures for electing  delegates to the provincial assemblies and deputies to the National Assembly.

The People's Council: Embryo for a qualitatively superior form of self-government

The constant qualitative and quantitative increase of real citizen intervention in state and government affairs is indispensable to the construction of socialism in Cuba.Steps are constantly being taken in this direction and the establishment of the People's Councils has been among the most important.  As one of the newest elements of government, the People's Councils have emerged as the key vehicle for social participation in state activities.  Their history is marked by three important dates:

  • 1986: The Third Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) proposes to initiate the experiment of People's Councils;
  • 1990: People's Councils are set up, on an experimental basis, throughout the city of Havana;
  • 1991-92: People's Councils are extended to the entire country and are  ratified constitutionally as part of the Cuban state system.

1986:  The People's Council, concept and early implementation

The Cuban governmental process is marked at all times by the impact of mass action (acción popular). This is expressed with particular force in the work of the municipal assembly delegate, the basic, primary, and most important component of the system.1  The municipal delegate is the state representative closest to the citizens.  Any citizen not legally disqualified can aspire to exercise this responsibility.2  Elected by direct and secret vote of the citizens of the electoral district, from among candidates publicly selected by local residents in nominating assemblies, the delegate is a member of the municipal assembly or highest organ of state power at the local level.  These assemblies are invested “with the highest authority to exercise state functions in their respective districts and to operate as government within the framework of their authority and according to law.”3

The municipal assemblies constitute the base level of state organizations and government.  Through the role they play in determining the make-up and functioning of the higher organs of government, the municipal assemblies effectively infuse the entire system with their popular character.

From the first People’s Power experiment applied in Matanzas in 1974, it was evident that certain geographic areas, due to their distance from their municipal administrative centers, might be neglected by the municipal government.  To remedy this situation, the administrative delegate was created during the Matanzas experiment; and, when the organs of People’s Power were extended to the entire country, that position was renamed executive delegate.  It was the responsibility of these delegates, appointed by the municipal assembly, to ensure that the municipal assembly would concern itself with matters particular to their locality. It also represented a step in expanding people’s participation in governmental work, since it was stipulated that these executive delegates would be assisted by a committee composed of representatives of the mass organizations in the area.

In its analysis of  how to improve the geographical subdivisions that had been established in 1976, the Third PCC Congress  (held in 1986), based on the work of the executive delegates, proposed the creation of  People's Councils in the 1986-90 period “in the towns that were municipal capitals historically and in others that needed such entities.”4  Following through on these recommendations, the National Assembly passed Law 56 of July 4, 1986, empowering the provincial assemblies to create People's Councils.

These first People's Councils could be established in towns that were not municipal capitals yet had an appreciable number of inhabitants and a significant level of productive and service activity.  One of the delegates, elected by the council, would serve as council president, and would deal with some of the economic and social problems of the local area, report to the municipal assembly and its executive committee, and represent them on matters of production and services.5  Besides the elected municipal delegates, the People's Councils would be composed of a representative of each of the mass organizations in the area, and other persons who represented community interests.  The council president, however, had the distinctive trait of being elected by the other delegates.  This reinforced the council’s democratic character.6

1990: Establishment of People's Councils in the city of Havana

Although approved in 1986, the People's Councils did not get off the ground until 1988, when the first one was created in San Antonio de las Vegas (Havana Province).  Between 1988 and 1990, 225 were established throughout the country.7  In 1990 the Council of State decided to authorize creating People's Councils in the city of Havana.8

It thus initiated a massive new undertaking.  An entire province, a highly differentiated political/administrative unit, would now be filled with People's Councils, with the province in question being the nation’s capital city and being almost entirely urban. This is how urban People's Councils came about.  They differed from the existing councils and influenced their subsequent development. To deal adequately with governmental work in the capital and still maintain their participatory essence, they were invested with additional power to deal with any and all entities within their districts, be they under national, provincial, or municipal control, and, in addition, to act as representatives of  provincial and national governmental bodies.

The extension of the People's Councils throughout the country (1991) and their inclusion in the Constitution of 1992 as part of the state system

In December 1991, the National Assembly agreed to extend the People's Councils to the whole country, emphasizing the following points:

  • The People's Council represents a more active approach to solving the particular problems of an area when it succeeds in involving the whole population in its activities.
  • The People's Council is able to bring together the area’s economic entities to respond to local needs.  In general, the encouragement of local initiatives in such problem-solving has a very important social and political effect in changing the mentality of the actors in the social process from passively requesting to actively seeking solutions. This emphasis on involving citizens in finding solutions can result in qualitative changes regarding mass participation in government.   (In the City of Havana, it was possible to have the people undertake the management and organization of many activities, which marked a significant step toward community self-government.)9
  • The existence of the People's Council, in particular through its powerful president, strengthened the role of the delegates and gave them additional support. Now the delegate was no longer the sole intermediary between his or her constituents and the assembly; instead there was a broader group of social actors working to coordinate the tasks of government.  That strengthened their work, especially in the People's Council’s locality¾where, of course, it increased the effectiveness in solving problems and thus the satisfaction of the population.

In 1992, the Cuban Constitution was amended to [among other things] include the People's Councils,10 thereby recognizing them as a stable part of the system, removing them from the experimental category. The term of office that began on January 10, 1993, carried the stamp of this new component of government, marked by popular participation at every level.   Today the People's Councils function practically everywhere in Cuba.  On July 12 and 13, 2000, the National Assembly approved the law that regulates their organization and operation, an important step in their systemic insertion into the Cuban state structure.

What makes the People's Councils an embryo of a superior form of  self-government?

The People's Councils represent a qualitative leap in the development of the Cuban state system.   With their establishment, the method of representative government changed substantially as the efforts of the municipal assembly delegates became more collective. They now interact much more with the other delegates of their district, as well as with district representatives of the mass organizations and its most important work centers, which also reflect the interests and necessities of the community. Now they can unite their efforts more directly and rapidly to confront local problems and bring them to the attention of the various organs of government.  With the People's Councils, the representative character of the Cuban state system is fortified at the level of the neighborhood in a qualitatively superior manner:

  • Communities have a new role based on the concept that the geographic boundaries of the council itself should be defined in accord with neighborhood history, tradition, economic ties, well-defined geographic limits and, in general, a community of interests.
  • The People's Councils have governmental authority over most local matters, whether or not these activities are under the auspices of the municipal assembly.
  • The People's Councils extend the scope of government quantitatively and qualitatively by linking their work to the mass organizations and to important local economic entities.  These new actors in government enrich the content of participation in the system without losing their role and identity.
  • It is especially important that, through the People's Councils, workers’ collectives can participate in government through representatives of the  Central Union of Cuban Workers (CTC), the National Association of  Small Farmers (ANAP), and administrators of  local economic entities.

Thus the economic sphere is given the representation it had heretofore lacked in the Cuban governmental system, thanks to its interaction with the municipal delegate within the People's Council. This has resulted in greater mutual cooperation among the district’s work centers and institutions, and their increased concern for the community as a whole.  The contribution of the People's Councils’ is to raise the level of participation in governmental affairs by all sectors of society. Thus, the Cuban state’s local organization becomes a unit with greater potential for independent action within the social system as a whole, at the same time reinforcing the system’s coherence  (integralidad). By strengthening diversity at the local level, it creates a higher level of unity in the system as a whole.

The People's Councils arose at an opportune moment in the development of  Cuban society.  This has to do in part with the very newness of the OPP system of government.  But, closely related to this, the councils were created when the country was immersed in a process of rectification of errors and negative tendencies, above all in the economic sector, but also having to do with the democratic character of the system, including citizen participation in government. Copying models from other social contexts and historical conditions led to centralist and “verticalist” tendencies, especially in the economy, but also extending to political activities and social life in general. The development of the People's Councils began in a historical context marked by the Cuban leadership’s awareness of the need to transform those tendencies.  Finally, but no less significantly, the People's Councils were opportune in the sense that they became part of public life at almost the same time that the Cuban Revolution faced its most difficult moments in the economic crisis known as the Special Period,11 which began in the 1990s.   During this period, the People's Councils have strengthened democratic government and the representative nature of the Cuban state system, especially in the capital, the vital core of the nation.

Nevertheless, it is also important to analyze certain problems evident in the development of the People's Councils, especially since these have led to difficulties related to their membership, to the system of People’s Power as a whole, and to the overall development of Cuban society under prevailing conditions.

Today the People's Council is in danger of abandoning its role as promoter of self-government to become “just another level (una instancia más),” even though, for the moment, it continues to promote and carry out actions that benefit the community.  It faces this danger precisely because of  the conflict between obtaining immediate results -– often surmounting inadequacies and deficiencies of the system -– and fulfilling its own larger potential.

There is an inherent tension between two facets -- the pragmatic/everyday and the fundamental/strategic -- of the process of social transformation linked to governmental action. Conflict arises from the failure to balance those two facets.  It is presumed that insofar as the councils act as a link of self-government, the practical results needed by the government will be achieved, overcoming existing shortcomings and deficiencies, while offering new potential for popular participation. The practice in many cases, however, is to seek immediate results without taking into account the new potential offered by the councils.  This occurs, for example, when people’s participation is reduced to simply responding to calls for voluntary labor that, in other historic stages, adequately fulfilled the principle of participation, but that today, even worse than being inadequate, represent a real obstacle to the development of the social process.  What in a given situation may have had positive results now succeeds only in creating styles and methods that, among other things, alienate the average citizen from the leadership.

In terms of the system’s governability, the shortcomings in realizing the potential of the People's Councils not only prevent their consolidation within the system, but also create conditions of conflict, linked to unfulfilled expectations and demands regarding the system's development. For the eventual development of  the People's Councils, it is important to make sure that the dialectical contradiction between the pragmatic/everyday and the fundamental/strategic dimensions of the government's activity does not evolve into a conflict that would be fatal to the councils and would have important consequences for the governmental system as a whole.  The eruption of such a conflict, with its unpredictable consequences, would lead strategically to the decline of community management and to the definitive loss of the councils’ essential character as an embryo of self-government.

Among the basic factors that can cause this contradiction to result in conflict are:

A.  The very way in which the Councils emerged and subsequently spread.

The People's Councils evolved from the executive delegate, which makes them bearers of a strong executive-administrative “gene,” and of a concept of citizen participation as a response to mobilization.  They were inserted into a system with various inadequacies, many related to a centrist-vertical style of leadership geared to attaining results, based on their commitment and need to constantly renew their legitimacy, satisfying ever higher expectations.

An additional factor is that, almost immediately after the councils were introduced, their development occurred in historically difficult circumstances.  Finally, all their development occurred on the basis of minimal – and in some cases contradictory and unclear – definition of their structure, organizational principles, and operation, all of which has always been explained by the intention to foster creativity in the implementation of this new level of government.  (This last aspect is still maintained even after the recent approval of the People's Councils Law by the National Assembly.)

B. The improvisatory character (asistemismo) of the transformations that occurred in Cuban society during the 1990s, especially the improvements in the state system. 

This pertains especially to the system’s primary, basic and fundamental element,  the municipal assembly delegate, and to the definition and introduction of the People's Council as a new element of the system.

The spirit of improving the Cuban state system has been a constant, especially since the initial experiment in Matanzas.  However, it seems to me that steps in this direction have not fully taken into account that action taken in relation to isolated elements of  the system does not always produce entirely positive results and can even have effects contrary to those anticipated, both upon what has been modified and upon the operation of the system as a whole. This is especially true since the municipal delegate, the most important element in the system, continues to be the same as when the OPP started in 1976.

This pattern of  improvisation becomes more significant, and even more complex, if we take into account that it affects the relationship of the council not only with the rest of the state system and national government, but also with the mass organizations and economic entities that are represented in it, and with the political organizations which, though not members, have close operational ties to it.

C. The prevalence in the mass media and in political rhetoric and practice of a generally short-term and pragmatic approach.

This is doubly important because the media’s impact on the consciousness of citizens shapes their ideas, and also directly induces daily practices that go further in terms of their lasting effect: in essence they create ideology, an element of strategic importance in social development.  The mass media stress, above all, the executive-administrative achievements of the People's Councils, such as oversight, control, and coordination of citizen participation in government and the community. Under this interpretation, the councils are judged more on the basis of administrative parameters than as vehicles of popular participation.

The improvement in the work of the People's Councils is part of the development of the Cuban state system and socialism. Of signal importance are the necessary measures for the organization and operation of the country’s economic life, in which sufficient autonomy has still not been granted to all enterprises and to local areas.  Indeed, the latter still lack a significant degree of managerial control over material and financial resources -- a key question in the design of any community development policy committed to a better system of self-government.  In all these ways, the People's Council reflects the complexity of Cuba's current condition.   Conceived originally to remedy shortcomings in the existing structure, the People’s Council has always included elements that give it the potential to overstep those boundaries and develop as a superior embryo of self-government.  With the partial development of the council’s potentialities its original expectations have been satisfied in good measure, and other new possibilities have emerged.

At the same time, however, other conditions and expectations have generated difficulties that could endanger achieving the most important potential value of the People's Council, that of being an advanced rung on the ladder reaching to higher levels of communist self-government.  This is because governing in Cuba encompasses the action of  administering state resources, but it is also, and above all, an important component of a model of development in which the decisions that affect all of society are made not by the elites but rather, to an increasing extent, by the masses.  In this model, the aim is not to lead with mass support under a given ideological legitimation, but rather for the masses themselves to lead, in a process of permanent renewal of authority that legitimizes the forms, methods, and ways of achieving social development.

In order to guarantee the adequate insertion of the People's Council into the system of national government, and to prevent it from becoming just one more administrative body, we must address the specifics of functioning of the Cuban political system as a whole.  Of primary importance is the party-state relationship.

In relation to the Cuban state system, it is essential, in the first place, to clarify and change the role of municipal assembly delegates and their place in society as a whole.  The delegates need above all to be more professional in their governmental work.  The job of the delegates, that of governing at the level closest to the base, is decisive for the system as a whole.  It requires a certain level of specialization: a capability that cannot and need not be synonymous with elitism, but that can no longer be conceived – as it has been up to now – as being attainable through pure activism and by any citizen elected solely on the basis of  a good public record. 

Professionalism of delegates means that they have the qualifications, attitude, and aptitude for governing, and that they are given the conditions necessary for them to do so.  In order to achieve this, it is necessary to modify the democratic process by which the municipal delegates are elected (nominations in public assemblies by area of residence; election on the sole basis of the candidates’ biographies).  To provide the conditions for the delegates to carry out their specialized work, they must be properly trained, given adequate time and resources to do their work, and guaranteed the necessary social and state recognition.

Secondly, it is necessary to change the relationship of the People's Councils to the Cuban state system, designating the responsibilities, tasks, and functions of all its members and of the council as a whole.  The council and its development should be conceived in a way which synthesizes its strategic value (related to its character as an embryo of  self-government) with the tactical need to obtain practical results in improving community life.12  This will require:

  • strengthening the authority of the municipal assembly delegate;
  • improving the supervision of all economic entities within a given local area whatever their level (national, provincial or municipal), and whatever the form of their ownership;
  • having a way to incorporate all the elements of the community in defining its needs and the means of channeling and satisfying them, as well as the forms, measures, and channels for community intervention in the implementation and materialization of what emerges -- essential for making the council an adequate vehicle of self-rule;
  • having a strong government figure in the neighborhood, one who can contribute to organizing the forces of the community for solving basic problems as an important part of the activity of self-government. The People's Council was incorporated into the system of state organization of Cuban society in order to improve it, to make it even more democratic, in response to objective demands for new modes of citizen participation in its activities and, consequently, for the solution of problems and satisfaction of people's needs.

The opportunities that the Cuban state gives for popular participation guarantee its permanence.  They also assure the higher development of Cuban democracy, toward the ideal of communist self-government.  As the bearer of important elements of democracy and of new facets in the governmental system, the council is an important factor for the possibility of governing democratically. To bring such potentials to fruition, however, the People's Councils cannot be left to develop spontaneously.  They must be followed attentively and given direction with an awareness of  basic strategic objectives adequately combined with the demands of each historical moment of Cuban socialist development. 

Elimination of the Executive Committees and changes in procedures for electing  provincial assembly delegates and National Assembly deputies:  progress and challenges in the necessary expansion of people’s participation in government operations

If the creation of the People's Councils was aimed essentially at eliminating shortcomings in governmental operations, the changes regarding the Executive Committees and the election of National Assembly deputies and provincial assembly delegates were objective demands resulting from the development of the very essence of the Cuban democratic system:  the people effectively exercising political power.  Since the establishment of the OPP, the provincial and municipal assemblies have been assumed to be the highest local bodies of state power (OLPP or Local Organs of People’s Power).13  

In practice, however, it became more and more evident that the real exercise of power lay not with the assemblies, but with the executive committees, which were conceived to represent them between sessions.  This was pointed out during the day-to-day work of the local assemblies, where it became an increasing hindrance to democratization, demonstrating the lack of real power of those selected by the people to represent and lead them, i.e., the assembly delegates. It decidedly weakened the role of the assembly as the main organ of local state power.14

Another problem with the executive committees has been deficiencies in their work, due in part to their inability to find cadres with appropriate training.15  Dissatisfaction with the work of these bodies increased, since in addition to their de facto usurpation of power from the local assemblies, they did not even do a good job.

As the OLPP evolved and the society in general matured, it became increasingly necessary to modify the situation with regard to the qualitative exercise of power -- defined to a large extent by the legitimacy and administrative competence of the real holder of power.16 The issue was essentially one of governability, given the objective demands arising from the development of Cuban democracy.  In response, the executive committees were evaluated and eliminated.  With the Constitution of 1992, it was established that:

The Assemblies of People’s Power are formed from the political-administrative districts into which the country is divided.  They are the highest local bodies of state power and are thus invested with maximum authority to exercise state functions in their respective localities.   They govern within the scope of their responsibilities and according to the law.17

Formally, then, there should be no doubt about the assembly’s exclusive authority to exercise state power and govern within its district. Along with this, the Constitution established local bodies known as administrative councils, stating that:

The local administrations established by these Assemblies manage local economic, production and service entities with the aim of meeting the economic, health, welfare, educational, cultural, sports and recreational needs of the population of the area in which each one has jurisdiction.18

In January 1993, after the adoption of the Constitution, the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers issued Accord 2645 on “Norms referring to the organization, membership, and authority of the municipal and provincial administrations subordinate to the Assemblies of People’s Power,” and later approved the regulations for the municipal and provincial assemblies of people’s power.   These two legal documents should have adequately established the place of the assemblies and administrative councils in the system, as well as the relations between them.

However, practice has once again confirmed Goethe’s maxim that  “…theory is all gray, but the golden tree of life is green.”  The administrative councils were not created to replace the executive committees, but rather to do what the Constitution clearly states.  They help strengthen the role of the assembly while improving the  work of the administrators of the local economic entities, so that the functions of  government in general can be more clearly distinguished from those specific to administration.

Previously, the executive committee had authority in two senses, as government and, more narrowly, as administrator, since it represented the assembly and carried out its mandate between sessions and was also in charge of directing the local economic entities.  Now, the action of government belongs clearly to the assemblies, with their commissions and People's Councils, and administrative tasks are assigned to the administrative councils.  At the same time, since members of the administrative council do not have to be delegates, it is possible to search for suitable, more stable cadres, resulting in higher quality of technical-administrative work. All this has had to take into account that the representative body in power, and bearer of the people’s mandate to govern, is the assembly.

Yet, after more than seven years of existence, the administrative councils and the assemblies have not reached full realization of their respective roles in the system, nor has there been sufficient differentiation between the administrative councils and the assemblies; and what is worse, problems have been only partially resolved or else have been untouched or even exacerbated.  The difficulty of finding capable cadre persists. It is not enough to be able to search for them without being limited to delegates, as was the case with the executive committees.  Work within the system of the OLPP is historically “not very attractive” because the resources available to solve the problems that arise are few, and, as if that were not enough, the working conditions have always been worse than those existing in the Central State Administration.19  During the changing economic conditions of the 1990s professional and technical personnel found even better job opportunities in other areas, adding still further to the already existing difficulties of finding cadres able and willing to work in local administration.

Still more difficult was the task of improving the real exercise of power  by distinguishing between the assemblies’ functions as bodies of governmental power and those of the administrations subordinate to them.  The executive committees were eliminated, and the administrative councils were intended to be subordinate to the assemblies, whose constitutional mandate is to “exercise government.”  Practice, however, has demonstrated that the real power of government is, to a large degree, still not exercised by the assemblies, but rather by the administrative councils,20 a situation conceptually worse than the usurpation of functions by the executive committees.  Before, the authority of the assembly was appropriated by the executive committee, which exercised power in its name and was composed of elected delegates.  Now this is done by appointed specialists, chosen on the basis of  technical qualifications, without direct popular consultation.21

A variety of factors have led to this usurpation of these governmental functions.  These range from a conceptual confusion between what is government and what is administration in our society,22 and what is state power in its different forms, to the duality of functions assigned to the President of the Assembly, who is also President of the corresponding administrative council.

Conceptually, it is possible to clarify and specify many things and it is necessary to do so.  For example, the duality of the Assembly president's functions “disappears” once the priority of the elective element is clear.23  In my opinion, however, this is not enough as long as the real possibilities for exercising power remain beyond the reach of the Assembly.  As we go deeper into this, we come, here again, to the question of the delegate.  Improving the institution of the delegate is the first condition for the assemblies’ success in carrying out the function the Constitution has defined for them, consistent with their role as representative bodies in our democratic system.

The delegate is a citizen who bears the high responsibility of governing on the basis of his or her electoral mandate.  With the start of socialist construction, governing becomes increasingly complex, especially in its implementation at the local levels of municipal and provincial assemblies.  To govern is not only to receive and transmit complaints from the voters, nor even to take action with those responsible for satisfying those demands.  To govern, under existing conditions and through the channels our system has established, has many more facets at the local level, such as participating actively in committees assigned to advise the assemblies on specialized topics;  becoming involved in community life to the point of  understanding the needs not necessarily expressed in constituent demands and turning them into assembly policies;  engaging in the complex process of conciliating competing interests which pertain to this body; and, finally, making a daily effort, with each and every one of the delegate's constituents, to educate them as active subjects of power and not simple consumers of policies,24 a complex process of  increasing involvement by the governed in the task of governing.

When the delegates are capable of working according to this concept and acting with this vision, the assemblies will be able to really govern as the maximum local authority of state power.  The corresponding administrative council will facilitate this by acting as the technical body for administering local resources – one facet of what government work entails that has not been used to the fullest under existing conditions in Cuba.   Little improvement in the work of the delegate means continuing weakness on the part of the Assembly.

For this reason, in my view, the elimination of the executive committees has not yet provided the response that was anticipated for strengthening the role of the local assemblies.  Therefore, in terms of  the democratic character of our system, it has not meant a significant step forward, but rather a relative step backward, due to the negative effect of modifying one facet of the process without substantially changing others, in particular, the delegate, especially the municipal delegate, who embodies the system's popular essence.

The creation of the administrative councils is a basic step in improving the Cuban governmental system; they have enormous potential, which requires further improvements. But their contribution to making the Cuban state more democratic, and hence to consolidating and deepening socialist democratic governing, depends above all on changes in the system of the OPP, and especially changes concerning the elected representatives, specifically the delegates to the local assemblies. 

Something analogous has occurred with regard to the modifications made concerning the elections of provincial assembly delegates and National Assembly deputies.  Without in any way sharing the belief that the democratic character of a governmental system is determined exclusively by the development of “competitive” elections according to the parameters of bourgeois democracy, I do believe that an important operational measure of  a system’s democracy is the level of popular participation in the selection of representatives, as an inseparable part of the link which should be established between electors and elected. 

In this sense, the level of democracy in the Cuban representative system is incomparably higher than in any other as far as the municipal assembly delegate is concerned.  Although it can and must be improved, the relationship between the local delegates and their constituents – starting from the very process of nomination and including numerous requirements for accountability – is of a quality to make this institution a bedrock of the system.

This is less true of the provincial assembly delegate and the National Assembly deputy.  Research and popular opinion – the latter expressed with particular emphasis during the process of discussing the Call to the Fourth (1991) PCC Congress – pointed to the need to improve the link between the people and their provincial delegates and deputies.  This was expressed in response to questions concerning how the slates of candidates were drawn up and how they were elected, and their real link with their constituencies.  A certain remoteness was evident, based not on any kind of class difference but rather on expectations reflecting the very level of political maturity of our society.

One step taken to correct that matter was the change in the process of nominating and electing deputies and provincial delegates, adopted in 1992 and put into practice for the first time in the elections of  February 24, 1993.25  The changes, in brief, were that the committees in charge of presenting slates of candidates to the municipal assemblies were no longer formed by the PCC and would now be chaired by a representative of the  Workers’ Central Union of Cuba (CTC) rather than by a Party member as before. The municipal assemblies would only nominate candidates rather than nominate and elect them as in the past;  the assemblies could reject a candidate – whose place would be filled from a reserve list prepared by the Commission – but could not propose new candidates as was possible before; municipal assembly delegates could constitute up to 50 percent of the provincial delegates and national deputies in each municipality, but were no longer required to be the majority as before; and, finally, the municipal assemblies would not elect the provincial delegates and deputies, but rather they would be elected by the direct and secret vote of the population in electoral districts within the municipalities. During the 1993 election campaign, voters were encouraged to vote for the whole slate of candidates (“voto unido”), as our people’s political reply to the enemy’s divisive campaigns, although the option of voting for each candidate independently was not excluded for those who preferred it. 

The 1992-1993 election process had another novel, and in my opinion, very important  ingredient, namely, the forums organized prior to the elections among groups of candidates and workers, students, and community groups, to introduce the candidates to the voters.

These modifications have had complex implications in terms of people’s participation, both directly as voters and through their representatives.  Regarding the candidate-selection process, the replacement of a Party representative by a trade union representative to preside over the candidacy commissions and the non-presence of the Party on these commissions do not signify a fundamental expansion of  popular participation in a society like that of Cuba where Party authority is acknowledged.  On the other hand, the new procedures for changing the slates of candidates presented to the municipal assemblies, and the lowering of the percentage of municipal delegates elected to be provincial delegates and deputies, are modifications of considerable importance.

The new procedure for approving slates of candidates complicates the process of making changes and thus limits the assemblies’ participation, thereby making the procedure less democratic than before.  During the procedure of  accepting the slate presented to the municipal assembly for nomination, delegates can only propose removing a candidate, which must then be approved by the assembly, but cannot propose including an alternative candidate, which can only be done by the candidacy commission.

Reducing the presence of municipal delegates among the provincial delegates and national deputies (from at least 50% to up to 50%) reduces the participation in the provincial and national bodies by the representatives most directly and immediately linked to the base.  But even more important is the potential for further reduction of this percentage during the course of the provincial delegates’ and deputies’ national terms of office, which last five years. The municipal assembly delegates’ term of office is two and one half years, after which time a delegate may cease to fill that office (because he or she decided not to run for reelection or was not re-nominated or reelected) but would still keep the position of  provincial delegate or deputy.  Thus, the original percentage of municipal delegates among the provincial delegates and National Assembly deputies is reduced for the remaining period of the five-year term, as has indeed occurred.26  

In my opinion, truly profound changes would be those that attempt to give the municipal assembly a deeper understanding of what is now guaranteed to each potential candidate during the process of defining the candidacy:27 for each delegate to be able to propose directly, at the moment of nomination, the changes he or she deems necessary, incorporating such proposals into the candidate’s slate, as was done previously.  The list of proposed candidates could even be directly and publicly developed by the assembly as part of the process of nomination.

On the other hand, the direct popular election of provincial assembly delegates and National Assembly deputies, preceded by an exchange between candidates and voters which qualitatively broadens people’s participation, creates expectations that, if not subsequently satisfied in practice, may turn into a step backward.  The objective of direct elections cannot be just a formality, but must rather be an attempt to bring the voters closer to their representatives.  According to the basic principles by which our system operates, strongly influenced by the development over these years of the municipal delegate’s role, the voters have the right to scrutinize the delegates they elect, to know what the delegates do and to have them be publicly accountable.

This exercise of the essence of democratic centralism, a pillar of our system, has not been adequately implemented with respect to the provincial delegates and national deputies.  For many practical reasons, such implementation is not easy.  One very significant reason for this is that, because of a complex arrangement seeking to combine sectoral and geographic representation, some deputies and provincial delegates do not reside in the districts from which they are elected.  However, the basis upon which Cuba’s system of representative government was conceived is the municipal assembly, whose representation is exclusively geographical, based on the municipal electoral district.

These limitations on popular participation have had a negative influence on the subsequent development of the system in terms of the link that provincial delegates and deputies have with the districts from which they were elected.  In my judgment, this can lead to effects contrary to those that were sought by these changes.  The intent was to overcome deficiencies in the links between citizens and elected representatives which affect the efficiency and consequently the legitimacy of the representatives. Retaining such deficiencies after the changes adds to unsatisfied expectations that can become harmful to democratic authority in a system already conditioned by a historically insufficient level of democracy.

Thus, the changes made in the process of electing provincial delegates and deputies, like the modifications introduced to eliminate the executive committees, have taken place without altering important elements within the very sphere that was the subject of the intended improvements—leaving aside the changes needed in the rest of the system.  All this has limited any positive impact of the changes and has even had potentially negative effects.

In themselves, the changes introduced are potentially positive, providing for the most part elements that broaden democracy; but they need to be improved still further, basically by completing the process with other changes, so that all elements of the state system further expand popular participation.

Constantly strengthening people’s participation:  the essence of Cuban socialism

We have looked briefly at three aspects of the system of People’s Power that have undergone changes in recent years, all of them linked in one way or another to the essence of this system:  people’s participation in government.  While progress is not all it could and should be, the analysis of these changes raises at least two points:

1. The question of popular participation in government is at the center of attention of the leadership of our social process.

2. The changes have been motivated not by the crisis of the Special Period, but rather by a process of maturation of the system, giving rise to developmental needs which can be addressed and confronted. 

Our democratic system thus continues along the same line of development that, throughout the years of revolutionary power, has made the state a vehicle for people’s participation in the leadership of society; and that line cannot be neglected.  Cuban democracy has changed and developed, which has fostered a higher level of democratic practice on the basis of greater opportunities and more real possibilities for all citizens to participate.  This is reflected in a higher level of political governability of society.

At the same time, however, this development imposes new requirements linked to the nature of political activity in this phase of social development, which in turn imposes new content in the work of the state, in the work of governing, and in the governability of the system – along with the new options and expectations it proposes for citizens.

The complexity of the present situation in Cuba is understandable if, along with this, we take into account the external conditions surrounding the Cuban social process – the blockade, constant threats and actions designed to subvert the internal order, causing great pressures and creating the need to adapt to these threats. One can affirm the need to address the shortcomings and deficiencies present in the system, resolve them, and continue to thoroughly study the development of Cuban democracy, a qualitatively superior democracy compared to the model that others wish to impose on Cuba, precisely because it is based on governing with growing popular participation in controlling and directing social life.


1. Each electoral district, organized geographically, elects a delegate to the municipal assembly (the primary local organ of state power) and thereby acquires a permanent functional existence within the Cuban governmental system.

2. The Electoral Law, published in the Gaceta Oficial of  2 November 1992, specifies in Article 9 that  citizens ineligible to vote may not serve.  According to Article 7, the reasons for ineligibility may be:  “…legally declared mental disability; … a prison sentence, even if on parole, on work-release, or on furlough;  … [and] privation of political rights for a period established by the courts in addition to serving the main sentence.”

3. Constitución de la República.  Gaceta Oficial de la República de Cuba, 1 Aug. 1992, p. 44.

4. Resoluciones aprobadas por el III Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba.  Pamphlet published by Editora Politica, Havana, March 1986, p. 19.  The Third Congress based its recommendation on material provided by the commission created according to the guidelines of the First PCC Congress, to analyze the outcome of the political-administrative division initiated in 1976.

5. From the Matanzas experiment until 1993, the executive committee functioned as the executive body of the municipal and provincial assemblies.  It was composed of delegates elected by these assemblies when they were established.

6. The adequate blending of democracy with centralism is indispensable.  Democracy expresses the action of each component of the system, dialectically counterposed to the equally necessary action of the center.

7. Data from the Secretary of the National Assembly of People’s Power.  See Jesús Pastor García Brigos, “Los Consejos Populares: Origen, Evolución y Perspectivas.”

8. Gaceta Oficial de la República de Cuba. 1 October 1990.

9. The People's Councils in the City of Havana were affected by the brusque change in the country’s economic situation due to the fall of the socialist camp in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  That change was particularly drastic in the capital, and its impact represented an important argument in favor of extending the People's Council throughout the country.

10. Constitución de la República de Cuba.  Gaceta Oficial de la República de Cuba, 1 August 1992, p. 4.

11. Jesús Pastor García Brigos,  “El  Período Especial: crisis en el socialismo cubano?” (“The Special Period: A Crisis in Cuban Socialism?”). Paper presented at international conference on “The Relevance of Classical Marxism on the 100th Anniversary of the Death of Frederick Engels.”  Havana.  September 1995. 

12. See García Brigos, “Gobernar en el socialismo,” in Ciencia Política: Indagaciones desde Cuba. Editorial Felix Varela, Havana 1997.

13. Article 102, Constitution of the Republic of Cuba. 1976.

14. Although the members of the executive committee were also delegates, this body was conceived to represent the assembly, not replace it, as reflected in the obligation to  render account of its activities periodically and in the required ratification of its more far-reaching decisions by the assembly (see Regulatory Standards of the Provincial Assemblies  of People’s Power.  Gaceta Oficial de la República de Cuba. 3 September 1982).

15. Since it was made up of members of the assembly, only delegates were eligible, and they had to be elected by the assembly, whose mandate from then on was day-to-day work.  That made it difficult to find individuals with the necessary specific training and the real possibility of devoting themselves full-time to these tasks, especially at the municipal level.

16. [Ed. note: The original of the phrase beginning here with the word “by” reads, in full, as follows: “…por la condición de legitimidad del portador real del poder y por la validación técnica de su gestión.”]

17. Constitución de la República, Gaceta Oficial de la República de Cuba, 1 Aug. 1992, p. 44.

18. Ibid.

19. This distinction was designed to take into account the necessary differentiation between activities that respond directly to the Ministries and central bodies of the country, and those of a local nature, which also implies a differentiation of possibilities, resources, “economic” power, and social recognition.

20. This can be seen by analyzing the operational relations between the local assemblies and their corresponding administrative councils, measured by the type of decisions taken by the former, and by the way in which the assemblies supervise the councils’ activities and influence their daily work, as reflected in documents of the assemblies and in interviews with  both  delegates and members of the administrative councils.

21. As established in Articles 105, paragraph f, and 106, paragraph f of the Constitution, the assembly has the authority “to appoint and replace the members of the administrative body…who are proposed by its President.”  Constitución de la República de Cuba, Gaceta Oficial de la Repùblica, 1 August 1992, p. 45.

22. See García Brigos, “Gobernar en el socialismo”, Ciencia Politica: Indagaciones desde Cuba, op.cit. 

23. Until the modifications of 1992 were made, the assembly elected its executive committee, which in turn elected its president, who was also president of the assembly.  Today, the assembly elects its president, who then becomes president of the administrative council and proposes its other members.

24. We always stress complexity at the local level.  As far as the national level is concerned, the organ of government may be distinguished from the organ of power, and, assuming our understanding of  the work of government, this gives rise to other complexities in the relationships of constituent to deputy, citizen to deputy, and member-of-government to deputies to simple citizens, and, in general, the role of  the state representative in carrying out the functions of the state as a vehicle of participation (a decisive aspect of the state’s socialist character).

25. The discussions on this matter and the subsequent Resolution adopted during the PCC’s Fourth Congress clearly reflect the factors that led to these changes. Discursos y documentos, Editora Politica, Havana 1992, pp. 212-241.

26. For example, the provincial assembly of the City of Havana began its seventh term (the first following modification of the electoral law and the Constitution in 1992) with 45.5 percent municipal delegates.  In 1997, a few months before the term ended, that percentage stood at 26.7 percent.

27. In principle, an important percentage of the potential candidates are drawn from the municipal assembly, for its members can include a maximum of up to 50 percent of the candidacies for the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly.  See article 93 of the Ley Electoral, Gaceta Oficial de la República, 2 November 1992, p. 59. Nominations currently take place only a few weeks after the municipal assemblies begin their terms. When the delegates are consulted by the candidacy commissions, the only information they have comes from reading the biographical summaries of their colleagues, plus perhaps a few more details from discussions with the other delegates. A more promising variant would be for the terms of the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly to begin later, perhaps a year later, than those of the municipal assemblies, which would provide for a period during which the municipal delegates could get to know each other better.