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People's Power in Cuba. (Book Review).

Peter Roman, People's Power: Cuba's Experience With Representative Government (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 284 pages plus photos. A second edition, in paperback, is forthcoming from Rowan and Littlefield.

There is probably no issue concerning Cuba as controversial among both left and right as that of democracy. Non-socialist critics ranging from the hard right, to fight-wing social democrats, constantly cite the lack of "free" elections, or else decry what they see as the predominant and suffocating role of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) which prevents open expression and opposition political parties. Critics on the left also concentrate on the dominant role of the party, likening the situation to the Soviet Union, or criticize the lack of workers' power at the point of production. Both sides like to cite the leadership of Fidel Castro as one-man-rule and a clear example of the overwhelming centralization of power in the party and leader.

Those who believe that Cuban democracy exists, however, base their defense on several elements. They cite the fact that socialist democracy goes far beyond the mere power to vote freely for one of several candidates representing both pro- and antisocialist positions. Specifically, Cuban democracy includes the right to health, education, and housing. Further, supporters argue that the party consults the people informally through polls and formally through mass organizations like the Cuban Workers Confederation (CTC), and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), and at the workplace. And they cite scholarly efforts by non-Cubans like Linda Fuller who points out that Cuban workers feel that they have input into decisions that affect their lives at the workplaces, neighborhoods, and beyond.

Few observers, however, have actually done fieldwork among the Cuban people on the democracy issue. Peter Roman is an exception. His study, People's Power: Cuba's Experience with Representative Government, examines Cuban democracy from the ground up.

Based upon extensive personal experience on the island over more than a decade, Roman examines the Organs of People's Power (OPP), and in detail, the Local Organs of People's Power (OLPP). He overwhelmingly concludes that at the people level democracy exists in Cuba today and that this democracy has been strengthened during the 1990s by conscious decisions made at the top. Further, the role of the PCC has become more circumspect in direct relation to the empowerment of the average Cuban. But Roman is not just a cheerleader, he points out the real limitations of this democracy, although he seems optimistic that it will continue to grow in future years.

Roman, a political scientist who teaches at Hostos Community College in New York City, has written a three-layered book. The first layer examines the historical and political origins of the theory of People's Power that underpins the Cuban experience. Chapters one and two trace these roots through Rousseau, Marx and Engels, the 1871 Paris Commune, the Soviets of 1905 and 1917, Lenin, and the post-revolutionary period in the Soviet Union as well as that country's post-Stalinist period.

The thickest layer, chapters three through six, examines the institutions of People's Power (Poder Popular) in Cuba and their development from the early revolutionary period to their formalization in the 1976 constitution, and their subsequent evolution. This section's main topics include an examination of the nomination process and elections for positions in People's Power; how accountability works in detail; and a look at the People's Councils (Consejos Populares) formed in 1989 and institutionalized in the 1992 constitution, to deepen the participatory process. An appendix includes a previously published article, "Workers' Parliaments in Cuba," which examines the mass meetings held by the CTC in 1994 to provide input for meetings of the National Assembly (the highest elective body in Cuba) later that year.

The third layer which, swirls throughout the text, is a running dialogue with the 1871 Commune, the Russian Revolution, and most vibrantly, with Cuba's detractors--from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times to prominent Cubanologists who make their living bashing Cuba from the safety of tenured positions at universities and reactionary think tanks.

Roman argues that a key to understanding the Cuban concept of democracy is the mandat imperatif (which he calls the "instructed delegate model") as developed by Rousseau, the Paris Commune, and later incorporated into the Soviets. The mandat varies in important ways from the Lockean traditions that spawned bourgeois democracy. The central idea here is that representatives should be truly accountable and responsive to their constituents. Thus, for example, it matters less what a delegate thinks than what his constituency thinks. Also key in understanding the historical origins of contemporary Cuban democracy are the ideas of the centrality of unity and consensus, and the rejection of a distinction between political and civil society. Thus, unanimous votes in representative bodies do not represent, as critics charge, imposition by the PCC, but rather legitimate consensus worked out in lengthy discussion at several levels. Nevertheless, as well noted by the author, unanimity does not always mean total consensus. The book also carefully notes that the Cubans have not just taken what existed in the Soviet Union willy-nilly, instead they have specifically rejected copismo (copying) and made significant changes in how local institutions work.

By far the most interesting and original parts of the book are those which describe the author's personal experiences. Roman attended nomination and election sessions, sat in on accountability meetings, went to working sessions, and accompanied local delegates on their rounds of the community. Most of the time he appeared unannounced. He complements these experiences with interviews with persons holding elected positions in People's Power, government officials, and Cuban intellectuals. It is this personal observation that leads Roman to conclude that democracy is working at the grassroots level.

Most of the book is spent examining the lowest levels of People's Power, the Municipal Assembly (MA) and the People's Councils. Less space is devoted to the Provincial Assemblies or the National Assembly. The main reason for this is that Roman sees these local levels as the driving forces behind democracy. He cites the fact that two to eight candidates must stand for election for each MA post, and that they are nominated in popular meetings at which 75 percent or more of the eligible voters show up regularly. Elections are by secret ballot and a majority is needed for election. Usually well over three of every four eligible voters exercise their option to choose their representatives, and over 90 percent voted for ratification of the 1992 constitution. This, of course, contrasts starkly with the low turnout in U.S. national elections. Further, each MA delegate is directly responsible to his or her constituency. They must hold regular office hours, and they must respond to specific complaints lodged by residen ts of their particular districts. A recall vote is possible if 20 percent of the voters, or 20 percent of the delegates in the MA, ask for it. Almost all the MA delegates are known personally to their constituents and are constantly on call, even at early hours in the morning. Imagine calling your city councilman to tell him your electricity is out and having him respond in person!

Further, the party has no input into the nomination process or elections, and, at least according to Roman, party membership is not that important in getting either elected or nominated. While a number of outside critics have downplayed the importance of the MAs, Roman argues that their concern with education, health, water, and consumer goods--both the quality and distribution thereof--has a decided impact through the chain of government. This is true both because the lower levels of OPP spend about 70 percent of local budgets and because they wield considerable power over local units of production and distribution. Debates at local meetings, by definition, have the question of the system's efficiency and its goals as a subject even if it is not verbalized in those terms.

So do we have a perfect budding democracy in Cuba? No, as even Fidel himself acknowledged in his speech at New York's Riverside Church in September 2000. Roman convincingly demonstrates that the system is still top-down in many aspects--national planning overshadows local demands, and the PCC retains total control of nominations at the top levels. He argues that the higher one goes in government the more bureaucratic the job and attitude. Yet, some 75 percent of the complaints from below are dealt with, if not always satisfactorily, they are at least on the agenda. Further, the local and very personal responses of the delegados to their local constituents, and the constituent's apparent general satisfaction, bode well for the future. Unfortunately, given the built-in constraints of the Cuban economy since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, no representative, no matter how talented or conscientious, can answer every complaint positively.

The reportage about meetings and legislative sessions, as well as the interviews, show clearly that problems persist in Cuban society (including corruption, inefficient distribution, and the low quality of some goods). But it also demonstrates a real community (read socialist) consciousness on the part of the people and on the part of their elected representatives.

In short, Roman's argument and message is clear. Cuban grassroots democracy is alive and well--it is growing, but like any adolescent it still has problems. Roman projects that things should get better in the future because every inch gained by People's Power can only lead to another. However, he never really enters into the debate about the reasons for the decentralization process. Did it happen because that was the only way that the party could control the commanding heights, because the people forced it from below, or because it represented the natural unfolding of the revolution over time, despite the economic ups and down? Nor does he speculate on what the dollarization of the economy might mean for Cuba, although he does record much resentment on the part of the average Cuban about that process. Lastly, I wish that the appendix had been incorporated into the text and made part of the discussion on People's Power.

This is a powerful, well-written, well-argued, and honest book. It makes a really eye-opening classroom text for courses on Cuba or socialism (a paperback version will appear shortly). Peter Roman should be congratulated upon a singular accomplishment and we hope that he will continue to follow the progress of Cuban democracy in years to come.

Hobart Spalding is Professor Emeritus from CUNY (City University of New York). He has published several articles in MR about Latin America. He currently is on the Executive Board of the Brecht Forum and recently founded MediaTEK Consulting, which provides systems analysis, database, and web work mostly to nonprofit organizations.
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Author:Spalding, Hobart
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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