Citizen Participation in the Cuban State

Julio César

Democratic republicanism has been central to major events like the French Revolution or the Spanish Republic, and now inspires changes underway in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. The socialist movement, like Jacobinism, is part of the republican heritage that includes struggles for democracy and the political concept of fraternity; reciprocity under conditions of equality is freedom. Anti-democratic republicanism, by contrast, characterized Latin American oligarchic republics established after independence from Spain, founded on the exclusion of indigenous, black and mestizo majorities as well as the free poor. That was the regime established in Cuba between 1902 and 1933. The country’s sordid reputation is based on its oligarchic and exclusivist profile, not on its republican character. The establishment of the Republic was the great conquest of the struggles waged throughout the nineteenth century.

Thus, the republican idea has conflicting implications in Cuba during the twentieth century. Calling the dictatorship of 1902-1959 a "Republic" and calling the regime that followed a "Revolution,” expresses this problem but does not help solve it. The current Constitution also has the formal aspect of a Republic. Now, the advance toward new and redefined republican principles is an urgent requirement for the democratization of Cuban politics. Promoting civic participation is key to collectively shaping the social order and ensuring that action taken by the government is under the control of its citizenry. Hence my interest in the institutional design of civic participation in the Cuban state. The goal is to recover democratic republicanism for Cuban political culture.

The republican conception of participation

Democratic republicanism links property ownership and freedom with self-reliance and self-government. It views the absence of domination as key to the coexistence of free and equal beings. The republican system must be the basis of democratization, meaning the reconciliation of freedom with equality through the universalization of citizenship understood as the interdependence of rights.

This republicanism shares two interrelated theses about republican liberty:

  • It builds independence. The program of universal freedom is the battle against the particularism that comes from monopoly control over property, from control by a particular group over the conditions of reproduction of personal and social life.
  • It builds autonomy. Being under the power or regulations of another reduces the citizen to the status of a subject.

The two objectives must be combined so that no citizen has to “ask anyone's permission to live" – so that no citizen is subordinate. The purpose is to eradicate all forms of domination, whether in the private or the public sphere. The republican way to fight monopoly power over property is to make citizens the owners of their living and working conditions, to involve them in shaping such conditions and allow them to control them. In this sense, politics is the common property of the whole citizenry.

Participation in self-government is a form of civic self-definition and not just a way to protect individual interests. Freedom rests on obeying the laws one has made for oneself. Participation becomes the republican justification for democracy. State power to issue binding decisions corresponds to the ability of citizens to make them. Participation implies popular sovereignty and representation in the form of a mandate; it recognizes the right of the citizenry to formulate policy, to participate in its implementation, and to control its trajectory. The government should be guided by this policy as it administers it, and the State should be subject to popular sovereignty, limiting its own power.

There is no incompatibility between direct participation and controlled representation if one adheres to the republican goal of maintaining sovereignty over the government. According to the Cuban state’s revolutionary discourse, this is the basis for civic participation in the State.

Direct participation of citizens in the State

With the creation of bodies of People's Power in 1976, democracy was codified as combining direct participation with political representation, with priority to the former. According to Ricardo Alarcón:

Like any organization on the scale of a nation-state, ours too has a representative character, which is not limited to formal representation, to appearance, but instead seeks the direct participation of the people in representative bodies. It incorporates as much as possible the mechanisms and forms of direct democracy in structures that are inevitably representative.1

Participation is fundamental; representation is secondary. Where the first doesn’t quite reach, the 'inevitable' second resource appears. The virtue and the efficiency of this model will depend in practice on the participation of the greatest number of people in the available channels, which should be as inclusive as possible. However, the mechanisms of direct participation enshrined in the Cuban Constitution are limited when compared with those established by the New Latin American Constitutionalism (NCL).2

The NCL recognizes the right of citizens to participate in the development, implementation and monitoring of the state budget, to demand hearings, oversight committees, consultations, open meetings, expert advice, and it also regulates institutions such as the “empty chair”;3 accepts all forms of social organization, institutes Citizen Power or the Council of citizen participation, and sets forth regulatory laws guaranteeing participation rights, even if they do not yet have implementing legislation; provides for popular, legislative, and constitutional initiative and for ratifying, advisory, recall and repeal referendums; and regulates access to the courts, direct participation of the people in the appointment of judges, the possibility of direct challenges to the nomination of judges of the Supreme Court, and the election of judges to the Constitutional Court.

The Cuban constitutional order enshrined as forms of direct civic participation the following: periodic elections, popular referendums and legislative initiatives.4 Analysis reveals that there are limitations in their implementation.

The electoral system

The reform of 1992 provided for voluntary, free, direct and secret voting for all assemblies, which remained unicameral and without parliamentary minorities. The power to nominate candidates for the provincial and national assemblies was entrusted to “nominating committees.” Candidates for municipal assemblies were to be nominated by neighborhood meetings. The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) was not considered part of the electoral process, since it did not present candidates.5

General elections are held every five years to choose delegates to municipal and provincial assemblies as well as deputies to the National Assembly of People's Power (ANPP). In the interim, every two and a half years, there are midterm elections to the municipal assemblies. These all occur without electoral campaigns. The municipal system is organized in single-member constituencies (one candidate is elected out of at least two and no more than eight candidates on the ballot), while the provincial and national electoral ballots have as many names as positions, and are a "closed but not locked" list, in which you can vote for one, several or all of the candidates, but you cannot add others. The candidates who are elected correspond to a specific number of the population – a system employed worldwide to prevent manipulation.

In short, there is a semi-competitive electoral process for municipalities and a non-competitive electoral process for the provinces and the nation.

In theory, a semi-competitive electoral system has the following functions: to legitimate existing power structures, to temper the country’s internal political conflicts, to offer an image directed toward international public opinion, to allow for the expression (and partial integration) of oppositional forces, and to make structural adjustments in order to strengthen the system. Meanwhile, having non-competitive elections provides opportunities to mobilize all social forces, to explain the criteria of state policy, and to strengthen the moral-political unity of the people.6

Most of these functions are realized in practice by the Cuban electoral system, which has held regular elections and has maintained transparency of the vote-count and high levels of participation with electoral guarantees (no official support for individual candidates, and criminalization of illicit electoral behavior), although there is no independent electoral authority that could exercise jurisdiction over these matters.

From 1976 to 2010, voter turnout has ranged between 95.2% and 95.9%. These figures have traditionally been touted as manifesting "support for our political system and a strong response of Cubans with voting rights to media campaigns orchestrated by the US government, the European Union, and their lackeys.”7

Voters have responded positively to official requests for a “united vote" – for all candidates8 – and less than 7% of ballots have been blank or invalid. With the 2013 elections, the call for a “united vote” was deemphasized.9 The elections have served as "virtual" plebiscites on the continuity of the project10 based on the historical legitimacy of revolutionary power and leadership of Fidel Castro, the at least partial acceptance by the citizenry of existing institutions, a commitment to defend the Revolution, and varying degrees of political and social pressure to vote.11

At the same time, the system entails a number of problems. Candidates for elective office run without a platform, through an electoral process that does not question political power, as the seats up for election do not encompass the entire structure of political leadership;12 one type of citizen preference – expressed in blank and spoiled ballots – is not included in the reported percentages; and there is no right to vote for citizens who have emigrated but who happen to be in the country at election time (the residence requirement is two years for voting and five years for holding office).


The Cuban Constitution gives the ANPP the power to call for referendums on two types of issues: matters that are considered critical, and constitutional reforms that go beyond what can be carried out by the ANPP (Art. 75, subsection u).

Reform presupposes a principle of the rule of law: constitutional supremacy. The guarantee of constitutional rigidity requires that any amendment to the Law of laws must follow an extraordinary process compared to that involved in ordinary legislation.

The ANPP is the only body that can amend the Constitution, in whole or in part, by resolution adopted by no less than two-thirds of its membership. If the revision is total or refers to the make-up and powers of that body or its State Council, or to the rights and duties enshrined in the Constitution, then it must also be ratified by popular referendum (Art. 137).

In 1992, following discussion during the Call to the Fourth Congress of the CCP (1990), over half the articles in the 1976 Constitution were modified. In this case, the ANPP decided that the measures would not affect those persons specifically protected by the Constitution, and it therefore approved the changes without a referendum.

These rules point to a problem: the Constitution transfers sovereignty from the people to the Assembly, which alone can amend the Constitution. The ANPP is considered to have constituent powers (1992, §3), when it should be the citizens. In actual practice, citizens only recover their sovereign constituent power when the referendum is deemed necessary by the ANPP, which also is the only institution entitled to interpret the constitutionality of its own acts (Art.75, c).

This transfer of sovereignty could be avoided by empowering other subjects – for example, a minimum number of citizens capable of initiating a constitutional referendum – and by setting higher requirements for the ANPP to reform the Constitution by itself, and with the requirement of prior consultation and/or ratification by referendum of relevant laws.

The ANPP’s power to call executive and legislative referendums on matters other than constitutional reform has not been exercised since 1976. In fact, the only time a referendum was held was to approve the Constitution of that year.

The law on referendums has other limitations. If the ANPP is the only body that can call them, then they could only address national issues and cannot serve as mechanisms of direct democracy in provinces, municipalities, people's councils and election districts – unlike what is proposed in the New Latin American Constitutionalism (NCL), which allows for referendums at all levels of public decision-making.

Consequently, the referendum in Cuba is not an instrument for direct exercise of power. To encourage its use, it would be necessary to expand the number of entities – citizen groups or public bodies – empowered to call referendums and, in so doing, to expand the scope of the decisions that they could affect. The approach of the NCL in this field favors activating the constituent power of citizenship, in the first instance, before any constitutional change.

Legislative initiative

According to the Cuban Constitution, laws can be proposed by the ANPP and its committees, or by the State Council, the Council of Ministers, the National Committee of the Cuban Workers Confederation (CTC), and the national leadership of the other social and mass organizations (OSM), as also by the Supreme Court of the People in matters related to the administration of justice, by the Attorney General, and lastly, by the citizens. In the latter case, no less than ten thousand voters must take part in the process (Art. 88). The rules of the ANPP establish requirements for the exercise of this right.13 Since 1976, the only attempt at such an initiative was made in 2002. Opposition leaders, with international support, used this platform to present the ANPP with a proposal ("Project Varela") that did not meet the aforementioned requirements.14

OSM leaderships regularly make use of their legislative initiative. For example, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) proposed a bill that became the Family Code, and the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) has proposed agricultural regulations. Its use has sometimes revealed contradictions. Such initiatives are invalid on constitutional matters, but in 2002 the OSMs proposed a constitutional reform.

The NCL has expanded and facilitated the field of "popular initiatives." It is used to propose the creation, amendment or repeal of laws; it must be supported by a stipulated percentage of those whose names appear in the election registry of the relevant jurisdiction. Popular initiative proponents then participate, through representatives, in discussion of the bill in the corresponding legislative body, which has a period of 180 days to consider the proposal; otherwise, it will take effect.15

To use this avenue in Cuba, it will be necessary to build a legal and political framework to create the right legislative environment and to ensure that requirements are met, guaranteeing the independent agreement of citizens and access to the media. Allowing citizens to propose new laws or the repeal of existing laws would give the sovereign people an instrument with which they could challenge the government.

Indirect participation of citizens in the State: People's Power

As explained, the mechanisms of direct participation under the Cuban Constitution have not been developed. Thus the representative process prevails over direct participation, contrary to the stated aims of the model. Representation is therefore the most widely used form of participation in the institutional decision-making mechanisms of the State. From the democratic republican perspective, this raises two issues: how to ensure universal access to the State and how to control the representative. The Constitution considers the processes of political representation to be indirect participation, which takes place through the system of People’s Power at municipal, provincial and national levels.

Nomination of candidates for State positions

The process of nominating candidates should ensure the right of all citizens to participate, by themselves or through representatives, in guiding the State (Art. 131). At the base level (the election district), citizens have this power but rarely use it. The available figures indicate that the number of candidates does not exceed the legal minimum (two per district) and that there is a high degree of overlap in the candidates proposed in the nomination assemblies.16 Participation is discouraged by the many responsibilities of delegates.

At the provincial and national levels, candidates are nominated by the nominating committees, which ensure broad but not universal access to the state apparatus. This fact leads to the under-representation or non-representation of groups with self-identified political beliefs, despite the Constitution’s commitment to the value of maximum inclusion.

Institutional discourse itself shows this limitation of the system: to prove its democratic character – in the sense of equal political rights for all citizens – it affirms that the electoral process would allow the nomination and election of any candidate, including opponents of state policy.17 This would require only that "someone" be nominated and get the necessary votes. This criterion, which applies at the municipal level, does not extend to other levels, in which candidates are proposed by the nominating committees.

In practice, the debate among revolutionary sectors has always involved different and conflicting positions. However, this diversity is not channeled through the electoral process: it does not get expressed in the nomination or election of candidates who hold different positions within the legal framework; nor is it represented in the deliberation of assemblies once elected.

Therefore, it would seem that the nominating committees do not effectively meet their goal of ensuring universal access to the State. They would have to act in the legal capacity of “citizens,” used by the Constitution and the Electoral Law, without ideological distinctions. Rejecting such distinctions is a democratic necessity: it affirms the principle of political equality. The proposals of the nominating committees are those of a universal body, the State (which belongs to all citizens), not of a private or selective body like a political party.18

It is not useful to compare this reasoning (as does current Cuban institutional discourse) with the exclusionary behavior of liberal electoral systems, in which representation is imagined as a market space. Liberal democracy is inherently elitist: it does not promise that all citizens will have access to the State, but only that their interests will be handled “democratically,” meaning that their representatives should take them into account. It is perhaps useful to compare the dilemma in question with that posed in Venezuela:

People’s power cannot be dyed the color of a particular political party or religious group; people’s power ... must be of many colors, must be like the rainbow and must accommodate all the citizens of Venezuela. It is the people who inhabit a community, a workplace or a school who should democratically elect their spokespeople and these individuals will naturally represent different political and ideological positions, depending on the strength that those positions have in their respective communities. That is the idea and that is what has been done where the Law of Communal Councils has been applied correctly.19

In Cuba, this point applies in various domains: the insertion,  at the level of state decision-making, of legal opinions different from those of the state/government; eligibility for or appointment to public office; the under-representation of disadvantaged groups; and the capacity of the representative process  to provide a universally available channel for participation in the State.

The issue of universal access to the State is not limited, as is usually argued, to conflict with the US-funded opposition. Given that the institutional design already disqualifies, legally and legitimately, those who seek to access the State with the support of foreign government agencies, the problem is a broader one – that of representation for the whole political spectrum that accepts, even if critically, the established legal order.

There is similar tension regarding universal representation in connection with appointments made by top officials (who are indirectly elected) to non-elective positions. These include management of schools, universities, research institutes, and productive enterprises, all of which perform state functions. Designation for such positions does not ensure equal opportunities to applicants. There could be, for example, a public competition for high-level positions, with the obligation to appoint whoever is “best for the job.” Selection criteria could require that only merits and ability be taken into account. The process can be one in which the grassroots citizenry (organized either geographically or by workplace, depending on the scope of the position) participates in the nomination and/or election.

The Cuban government has maintained policies to promote underrepresented groups through different mechanisms and actors. OSMs have played a pivotal role in the continuity of these strategies; however, the identity politics with which they work reflect the kind of homogeneous social structure that was maintained for three decades, and not the heterogeneous one that has emerged in Cuba since the 90s, in which people have developed multiple loyalties and identities.

This diversity needs to be processed from a paradigm that recognizes social and civic identities in flux, and that draws the necessary political implications: recognizing the right of participation to self-identified social groups and evaluating whether they are being subjected to discrimination. There are indications that anti-discriminatory practices have been implemented more at the middle and higher levels rather than in processes affecting the masses – as occurs with women, who are underrepresented in local government. At the same time, it is necessary to think of strategies that avoid narrow policies and make it possible to present their interests as universal in the public sphere.

In no case must the political demands of identity be excluded from the democratic decision-making processes. To implement this goal, the work of the nominating committees should be guided by the principles of a) pluralization, under new criteria, of the ideological basis of representation, and b) a corresponding modification of the institutional framework of selection.

Cuban institutional discourse proposes voting for the “best and brightest.” The information provided on the candidates is a brief record (one page) or description of their experience in the student/labor and political-institutional spheres. This ideologically grounded approach excludes from consideration other possibly relevant dimensions such as skin pigmentation, age, health status, income, sexual orientation, several of which play a role in the social experience of eligible individuals and generate diverse political behaviors. There is limited opportunity for the demands of a decolonized citizenry, which ideally would lead to political equality from positions of difference. Pluralizing the ideological basis of representation helps loosen relations of domination based on class, race, gender, age, cultural differences, etc. Official discourse argues that “talking” about these dimensions amounts to a kind of demagogic “campaigning.” But the real demagogy consists in lack of oversight over the representative.

Here lies one of the fundamental themes of contemporary discussion on republican citizenship, which focuses on “two issues ... that of individual rights and that of collective identities, the question of a just society and a question of belonging to particular groups.”20 In this regard, it may be useful to establish minimum rules of access to the state apparatus in favor of socially disadvantaged groups, and to assure that the various types of organization within society have avenues to make direct demands on the state and that they be represented before the corresponding state deliberative body.

On the other hand, the geographic basis of representation – election by municipal election district – is effective in maintaining ties between the voter and the elected official, and encourages processes of accountability and recall, but also has limitations: a) “it creates conditions in which people are represented primarily as consumers, in a passive manner and not as producers,”21 and b) the mandate given to candidates cannot be on a scale or outside the purview of their specific territory, and leaves social groups with non-“local” interests unrepresented.

Therefore, it would be useful to complement institutional principles of representation so as to pluralize the ways in which different interests can find representation in the state. For example, one could incorporate the criteria of interest representation, which considers the occupational or class membership and does not replace or eliminate geographical representation. The debate over this type of representation has been internationally reanalyzed in terms of neocorporativism (democratic or statist), which attracts those strongly influenced by the idea of the social welfare state.22

The voter-delegate relationship: the nature of the “mandate”

The Constitution provides that delegates fulfill their “mandate” in the interest of the whole community. The term “mandate” is used in the legal text in its chronological sense: the term in office.23 However, institutional discourse uses it as “trust placed in the representative” as a fiduciary agent. Delegates are not paid and must still have other jobs.

This analysis has three implications: a) there is no mandate from the voter to the delegate; b) voters deliver a petition to the delegate that is administrative and not political; and c) the delegate is an agent of the State. Insofar as these theses obtain, we can say that the institutional design transfers sovereignty from the citizenry to the government.

The delegate is linked to the voters through hearings, weekly sessions with individual citizens, and semi-annual accountability meetings, at which time demands are presented. It is required that the delegate respond to issues raised by each voter and also those brought up at accountability meetings. The delegate’s work is measured by the quantity and quality of the explanations and/or solutions offered. The issues posed (planteamientos) reflect opinions, complaints and suggestions, but are decisions.24

The mandate is an administrative one: to ensure the quality of performance of institutions providing services in the locality.25 This philosophy, which understands the delegates to be agents of practical problem-solving, is democratic: the responsibility of People’s Power is to the needs of everyday life. The criterion is an element of the “care economy,”26 which does not prioritize efficiency or profitability over the provision of essential services.27

The obligation incumbent on the delegate is, according to the Constitution, “to present to the Assembly and the Administration of the municipality the views, needs and difficulties expressed by their electors” and to provide answers about the steps required in order to meet their demands. The delegate is an agent who acts on behalf of the voter in two areas: in the oversight and supervision of the activities of administrative agencies, and in the participation of the electorate in state representative bodies.

Under this logic, the delegates are “called on” to improve the “administration” but are not charged with the “responsibility” of approving any particular “policies”: the delegate is not an agent of the voter to shape the political order of his election district, but instead, is an agent of the State who contributes to solving community problems, with the support of the State.

The institutional design obliges the delegate to follow directives from higher bodies, given that “the provisions of higher state bodies must be followed by the lower bodies”; and that “the lower state bodies are responsible to the higher bodies and are accountable for their management” (Article 68, paragraphs d and e). Hence, the State is the “principal” in this agency relationship. The Constitution stipulates:

Representatives to the National Assembly of People's Power have the duty to develop their work in the best interest of the people, keep in touch with their constituents, listen to their problems, suggestions and criticism, and explain to them the policies of the State. (Art. 84, emphasis added. JCG)

The terms used are precise: (a) the “state policy” which is “explained” to voters is not made by them, but (b) it is governed by the principle of “benefiting the community.” The first clause reflects the vertical subordination of the state system (the higher bodies supervise the lower ones); and the second reflects the obligation of accountability and the possibility of a recall. It is expected that the role of “principal” in the relationship established by the State with the delegate cannot be exercised by the State alone; it should be developed “in collaboration with the OMSs” (Section 68, subsection ch).

The underlying concern of the NCL analysis is to build a network of “local assemblies of national democracy,” as a space in which citizens can continuously exercise their right to participate in government, not only on local and municipal matters, but also on national or plurinational issues.

Delegates’ powers

Local delegates have considerable legal powers. They are considered the top state authorities in their districts. However, they do not govern. This, combined with their limited ability to allocate local resources, limits the exercise of their powers.

The Municipal Assembly of People's Power (AMPP), composed of district delegates, is constitutionally granted state and government powers. Official discourse entrusts the delegates with state oversight functions, but the elected delegate carries out governmental as well as state functions. The confusion between the State and the government originates in the Constitution. The second term is used with two different meanings: the general government of the nation (legislative bodies of state and government without distinction) and administration in a strict sense (agencies that are explicitly part of government). This double usage causes confusion, making it possible for one body to usurp the functions of another.28 The job description of delegates is built on this ambiguity.

The functions assigned to the local delegates limit their exercise of both “political” (policy-making) and “administrative” powers, because they oversee policies that have been defined by structures of government (Council of Ministers, ministries, provincial and municipal levels) in which they have not participated.

Moreover, the powers granted to the delegates imply a transfer of power from the central to the local level, which to be effective must be accompanied by the ability to make decisions about the use and generation of resources, which in turn raises the issue of the municipal budget.

Since 1999, improvement of the budgetary system was directed toward encouraging provincial and municipal governments to collect revenue and to be more efficient in their expenditures. However, the plan has not generated the expected results, as it has not increased the ability of delegates to make decisions regarding the local budget.

The distortion created by the dual currency in Cuba adds to the difficulty of managing the budget. Transactions in convertible pesos (CUCs) are essential to the basic functioning of the national economy.29 The State’s budget is approved by the ANPP in pesos (CUPs), but the amounts in CUCs are included as “equivalent” (1 CUC for 1 CUP). The result is that the National Assembly does not make substantive decisions through discussion on the budget; the use of the convertible pesos is regulated by officials at the top levels of the government. The National Office of Statistics offers economic data in CUPs and the amount of CUCs that have been printed for circulation in the country is not known. Thus, a problem of legality arises, where decision-making is based on rules not subject to scrutiny by the highest bodies of the State. The procedure prevents citizen oversight over a central topic of resource allocation – the state budget – and thus alienates the citizenry from the possibility of participating in its formulation.

Locally, the AMPP approves a budget in CUPs which it receives essentially as defined by the higher bodies, and does not have the power to participate in allocations in CUCs, which are handed down from the upper levels of government. The adoption of municipal budgets is thus a mere formality and not a vehicle for local initiatives. This limits the role of the delegate and reinforces the transfer of sovereignty from the people to the seat of government.

Overseeing elected officials: accountability meetings and recall

Overseeing representatives through accountability meetings and recall completes the institutional design for citizen participation in state governance. Accountability meetings are a constitutional obligation for all bodies and officials of the State.30

Delegates must convene accountability meetings twice a year. They must seek out relevant information in advance in order to provide convincing responses and must assure the attendance of those with responsibilities for problems in the community. AMPP reports show great concern for the quality of these meetings; they expect neighbors to participate in solving community problems. Delegates are expected to work with the AMPP to address the issues that are raised; they should assure that voters don’t leave the meetings prematurely, and that communication between delegate and constituents takes place, etc.

Despite all this, a June 2006 report of the ANPP Committee on local bodies of People's Power said that there were serious problems with the “attention, responses and solutions offered regarding issues raised by the population.”31 In 2009, another report of the same Committee stated, “the level of solutions to issues raised with administrative entities is particularly low in some geographical areas.”32 From the interviews conducted for this study, it is clear that there are high levels of formalism in the accountability process.

The functioning of accountability meetings suggests a need to reduce their scope, because of limitations placed on the powers of delegates. Correspondingly, the institution of recall has become less effective as a mechanism of popular oversignt. The resignation of delegates or their non-reelection is usually an easier course than going through the process of recall. Recall is applied only in exceptional circumstances, such as cases of theft by the delegate.33

On this point the ordinance does not take advantage of the consequences of the direct vote. The delegates to the provincial assemblies and the deputies to the National Assembly are elected by direct vote by the citizens, but render accounts to and can be recalled by the municipal assemblies of the municipalities from which they were elected, instead of by the citizens who elected them. This is consistent with the purpose of having the delegates be agents of higher state legislative bodies.34

The figure required to initiate the recall process—no less than 25% of the municipal assembly delegates from the municipalities which the provincial delegates and National Assembly deputies represent, is high compared with those in other NCL countries: Venezuela requires 20%; Ecuador, 10%, and Bolivia, 15% (as a minimum) of the electorate.35

Accountability could be more effective if it were not limited to administrative requests. Representatives should give responses regarding the issues raised; they should explain the decisions of the bodies in which they serve; they should defend the specific wishes of their constituency.

Greater accountability to the voter presupposes improvements in related areas such as institutional transparency and public communication. It would be necessary to legislate the guaranteed access of citizens to public information and to enact the law of freedom of speech and of the press called for in the Constitution (Art. 53).

In the future, it will be necessary to redesign the rules governing representation so that specific demands related to the functioning of local administrative bodies are still collected – as is done now –but also so that delegates would be obliged to promote, at the higher levels of decision-making, policies that have been formulated at the base. Giving autonomy to the provinces and municipalities would reinforce and enlarge the powers now given to the delegate.

In conclusion

For further democratic development, the Cuban state must become an important actor but not the only one. Power must be built from different “places” — the state, the public sphere, mass organizations, civic groups — and in the political space governed by the principles of autonomy and cooperation, with the direct participation of the public in development, implementation and oversight of state policy to this end: collective construction of the social order.

Increased citizen participation faces numerous obstacles, both from the social context and from the design of the system. The institutional system has been sustained – despite contradictions and disincentives – by the quality of the actors involved in it. But this system has not lived up to its potential, because the context is one that has limited the ability of delegates to carry out their functions. Therefore, the model for citizen participation in the State needs a major redesign, so as to assure universal access of citizens to the State, popular sovereignty vis-à-vis the government, and popular oversight over delegates.

In Latin America, especially in the NCL, there are experiences that can serve as reference points for reformulating the Cuban model of political participation and representation. Looking at the NCL models could help “update” Cuba’s institutional system of participation and its general philosophy of the exercise of power. To move strongly in this direction would be to affirm a democratic radicalization of Cuban socialism. The magnitude of the associated challenges suggests that the way to address them would be through a national constitutional process.

Originally published in Revista Temas No. 70, July, 2012.

This text is a summary of research carried out by the author as part of the 2009-2011 CLACSO-ASDI Research Program, under the title “Estado, participación y respresentation políticas en Cuba. Diseño institucional y práctica política tras la reforma constitutional de 1992.”


1. Pascual Serrano, interview with Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, Rebelión, December 6, 2003, id = 53.

2. The NCL owes its origins to the constitutions of Brazil (1988) and Colombia (1991). However, the label of NCL is used only to refer to the constitutions of Venezuela (1999), Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009), on the grounds that they continue the advances of the first two texts, but with differences. See Roberto Gargarella and Christian Courtis, El nuevo constitutcionalismo latinoamericano: promesas y interrogantes (Santiago, Chile: CEPAL, 2009). This latest wave of NCL is relevant for Cuba because it advocates a “socialism” that seeks social change through constitutional rule of law (Estado constitucional de derechos), which means a break with the socialist tradition of the 20th century and adoption of the original democratic republican perspective, all in the context of permanent attacks—legal and illegal; internal and external – against the processes of change underway.

3. “The sessions of decentralized autonomous governments shall be public, and in them, there will be an empty chair, to be occupied by a citizen representative … to participate in discussion and decision-making.” (Constitución de la República  Ecuador, 2008, Art. 101).

4. Constitución de la República de Cuba 1976, amended in 1992 and 2002 (Havana: Ministerio de Justicia, 2002), Arts. 131 and 88.

5. [Ed. note: Since the constitutional reform of 1992 the PCC no longer has a seat on the nominating committees.]

6. Diccionario electoral (San José, Costa Rica: Centro Interamericano de Asesoría y Promoción Electoral, 1988), 260.

7. “95,86% of the electorate voted,” Granma, 30  2010,

8. Voting for all candidates on the ballot means that candidates are saved from getting less than 50% of the vote.

9. In the 1995 midterm elections, 4.3% of the ballots were blank and 7% were spoiled, for a total of 11.3%, a record high. In 2010, there were 4.59% blank and 4.3% spoiled, for a total of 8.89% (723,120 voters, the highest number since 1995), which the political opposition touted as a sign of “increasing discontent on the island” (Juan Tamayo, “Dissidents believe that elections reflect discontent in Cuba,” El Nuevo Herald, Miami, April 28, 2010). If you add 4.14% abstention, the result is that 1,077,444 people (12.58% of the electorate) did not vote according to the official report.

10. Roberto Gili Colom “All choices are valid: elections and ranking the plebiscite,” Elections in Cuba? farce or democracy? (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 1993), 56.

11. People consulted for this study said they were solicited at homes to vote between 12:30 am and 1:00 pm — the polling station closes at 6:00 pm— by neighbors, members of the Committee of Defense of the Revolution (CDR), or other activists. Others report that sometimes they receive personal names, depending on who's doing it: for example, Operation TunTun, developed by schoolkids. (Raimundo López, “A Different Sunday,” Elecciones en Cuba? farsa o democracia? 52). The people may fear, with or without justification, adverse consequences for not voting. Certainly for many jobs, or the allocation of certain resources, “verification” is required, in one’s place of residence, of one’s political behavior.

12. Government positions are elective, while leadership of the PCC, which governs the state, is not subject to popular vote. The technical explanation for this is that party leaders must be elected by party members, but this leads to a distortion of representation. “I will vote again when they let me choose the municipal secretary of the Communist Party, who is the person that really has power and can change things,” said a woman who chose to abstain ... in this election. Fernando Ravsberg, “Cubanos votaron, no se esperan cambios,” Cartas desde Cuba, BBC, Havana, April 26, 2010.

13. A rationale must be presented taking into account the history of the issue, foreseeable economic consequences of implementing the proposal, impact of the proposal on existing laws, etc. If the proposal originates with ten thousand citizens, then there must also be a notarized affidavit confirming the voting eligibility of each of the signers. Reglamento de la ANPP,, en la direccion:].

14. See Manuel Alberto Ramy, “Proyecto Varela, viabilidad jurídica,”

15. Constitución de la República de Ecuador, Art. 103.

16. Since 1992, the figure of two candidates per district has been closest to the average. SeeElecciones 2005”, Anuario Estadístico de Cuba,Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas, Havana, 2005 and 2008.

17. See Gili Colom, “All choices are valid” (note 10), and Serrano, interview with Alarcón (note 1).

18. The institutional design embodies this indeterminacy: it separates the State from the Party, prohibiting the party from nominating candidates, but subordinating to the party the OSMs, which have that responsibility. A democratic radicalization would mean that nominating entities would not be subordinate to either the OSMs or the party.

19. Marta Harnecker, “Participación popular y socialismo en Venezuela,” in Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, ed., Socialismo y democracia participativa en Venezuela (forthcoming).

20. Ángel Rivero, “Tres espacios de la ciudadanía,” Isegoría (Madrid), no. 24, 2001, 52.

21. Miguel Limia, “Participación popular en la sociedad socialista cubana: tendencias de sudesarrollo ulterior,” in Haroldo Dilla, ed., La participación en Cuba y los retos del future (Havana: CEA, 1996), 72-73.

22. Norberto Bobbio, Teoría general de la política (Madrid: Trotta, 2003), 491.

23. This is how it is used in the Electoral Law (Arts. 11, 94, 146, 152, 153, 155, 156).

24. The proposals are collected exactly as they are given by the voters—whose names are listed in the report issued—but they are not voted on in the assembly because they would then be considered binding. Here are some testimonials collected for this research: “Although the voters are the highest authority, you cannot be left to the mercy of decisions made by the voters, because they may not be able to provide a solution to the problem being addressed.” “More than a decision, more than agreement, the word is a promise, as our work is political. The point is that you should at least give voters a response.” (emphasis added)

25. Consider this complaint and response collected in a Havana election district between 2004 and 2006. Complaint: “The water company broke up the street in front of the building to make repairs, but in doing so, left everything fully open, and when it rains, there is flooding.” Answer (from the water company): “The place was visited and it was found that the work was done by the municipal work brigade (micro social) and the rubble was left by them, as confirmed by a neighbor. So far as our company is concerned, this complaint has no merit.”

26. See Corina Rodríguez Enríquez, “Economía del cuidado, equidad de género y nuevo orden económico internacional,” in Del Sur hacia el Norte: Economía política del orden económico internacional emergente (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2007).

27. Issues of the quality of these services, and alternative ways of running them, are beyond the scope of this study, as is the absence of key elements of the care economy in the Cuban system – for example, the state not recognizing the economic value of housework as a source of wealth and therefore not quantifying it in public accounting.

28. Marta Prieto and Lissette Pérez, Temas de derecho  constitucional (Havana: Editorial Félix Varela, 2000).

29. The following discussion on the use of CUCs in the budget is based on my interview with Pavel Vidal Alejandro, a researcher at the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy (Havana, 21 June 2010). More recently, Cuba has undertaken a process of unifying the two currencies. This will affect State budgets at all levels.

30. According to then Minister of Culture Abel Prieto, “My work … is subjected to ongoing discussion by civil society. The congress of the pioneers is held and I hear what children say about cultural policy.... I attended a Writers Assembly at UNEAC [writers’ and artists’ union].... There we analyze everything from copyright fees to the benefits of criticism by revolutionary intellectuals. I also attended the congress of the FEU [Federation of University Students]. Our enemies call this the expression of an official, manipulated civil society, but these ‘instruments of the regime,’ as they call them, demand that I explain things, and there have been very significant corrections.” Abel Prieto et al., “El socialismo hoy: cultura y política,” Último Jueves. Los debates de Temas, v. II, ICIC Juan Marinello/Temas, Havana, 2008, 331.

31. ANPP. Informe presentado por la Comisión de Órganos Locales, author’s files, 2006.

32. ANPP, Análisis del cuarto proceso de rendición de cuentas de los delegados de las Asambleas Municipales a sus electores. XIII mandato, segundo semestre de 2009.

33. If the accused candidate resigns during the recall process, the official body may accept the resignation and archive the documentation at the stage it has reached. The law sets rigorous requirements for initiating and implementing recall. This opens up the possibility of its discretionary use. However, “If you start the recall process, there can be a vote resulting in the person not being recalled. Your action followed the rules, but it is a political defeat. If I know the person will not be recalled, I’m not going to begin the process. If this same person offers his resignation, I will accept it.” Interview with Tomás Cárdenas, president of the ANPP’s Comisión de Órganos Locales del Poder Popular (June 24, 2010)

34. [Ed. note: The process to recall municipal assembly delegates can be initiated with a written request by at least 25% of the voters in the delegate’s electoral district. A formal secret recall election is then held, decided by a majority of the electoral district voters.]

35. Constitutions of Bolivia (2009), Art. 240; of Ecuador (2008), Art. 105; and of Venezuela (1999), Art. 72.