My first visit to Cuba was in 1978, just 19 years after the 1959 Revolution which swept out the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, and saw the first popular, and truly Cuban, government on the island. The achievements during those years, especially in health and education, are well documented. These were summed up for me by an elderly woman who approached me in the street in Havana to tell me ‘My grandmother was born into slavery in this country, and now my granddaughter is a qualified doctor’. The pride and commitment of Cubans was palpable, and from that time onwards I followed with great interest the fortunes of the Cuban nation.
After the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s, Cuba suffered an almost total collapse of its economy and everyone, friends and foes alike, expected it to go the way of the Eastern European countries. Explanations for its survival were sought and elaborated more or less according to political perspective of the observer. My own thoughts were that the strength of local communities, and the practice of social solidarity at the neighbourhood level, might have been significant factor. More than three decades after my first visit to Cuba, I decided to embark on a PhD to allow me to frame these thoughts as a research question.
During the course of my research I looked at the structures which support and encourage popular participation. These are principally the mass organisations, which incorporate the vast majority of the population, and the Organs of Popular Power (OPP), the structures of governance. There is not a great deal of literature outside of Cuba on these structures because they are commonly viewed as mere tools of an all-powerful elite.
In the Cuban polity, the Municipal Delegate is a key figure, and their nomination and election underpins the OPP. The OPP has four tiers: at the most local level are the Consejos Populares (Popular councils) and there are around ten to fifteen of these in each of the 169 Municipalities. Each Municipality has a directly elected Assembly. There are also fourteen elected Provincial Assemblies and a National Assembly made up of elected Deputies. The roles of Delegate and Deputy are, with some exceptions, unpaid. Those who are paid are released from their day-job for a defined period and paid their usual salary. The foundation of the OPP is the election of Municipal Delegates. They stand as individuals – the Communist Party does not stand candidates and is barred from involvement in the whole electoral process. Delegates are nominated by neighbours (that is neighbours nominating neighbours) and must live in the circunscripcion (ward) where they are candidates. There must be between 2 and 8 candidates on the ballot paper for each Delegate position, i.e. the election of Municipal delegates is competitive. It is also important to note that up to 50% of people who make up the Provincial and National Assemblies are Municipal delegates, linking the local to the national structures.
Given the closeness of the Municipal Delegate to their electors, and the role they play at all levels of the OPP, I had thought, early in my research, that the Municipal delegate might be the key to Cuba’s survival during the 1990s. In fact, what I have found is that the story of popular participation is much more complex, and the popular involvement in the governing of the Cuba goes far beyond that of the elected Delegate, important though that is. Through their mass organisations, which work closely with the OPP, Cubans have multiple opportunities to participate in the government of their country.
I am a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham on a part-time basis. Having spent three months in Cuba last year, I am now in the writing-up my thesis.
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