September 29, 2011
HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 29 — The Romans weren't the ones who invented
municipalities as local institutions, though they understood the need to
develop political structures capable of maintaining the unity of their
Argentinean law professors Natalia Stringini and Mariana Sconda insist
that, "The Roman Empire's long life and the conservation of its forces
were due to the proper organization of municipalities."
In short, for them to govern, the Romans were forced to decentralize
power, creating a political-administrative structure that was able to
harmonize the needs of the local community with the interests and unity
of the far-flung empire.
But the professors go further to affirm that, "Municipalities had a
preponderant role in the political history of the world" and today these
still imply a "social and political duality" that serves as a
counterbalance to central governments.
Cuba's government opted for centralization
The Cuban model — to the contrary — is so centralized that almost
nothing is done on the island without the authorization of Havana. The
country was standardized to this degree even to the point of losing many
of each region's particular cultural traditions.
The attempt at creating a system of municipal government based on local
institutions of "Popular Power" never caught on. It may be possible
that their composition has a base that's "popular," but it's also
evident that these have practically no "power."
A few months ago I learned that a European NGO couldn't begin its
operation because the benefitting municipality didn't receive
authorization — from Havana — for the organization to open an account in
a Cuban bank or receive a donated vehicle.
The phrase most repeated by municipal delegates to their constituencies
is that "we haven't received an answer to our request," because
generally business managers and politicians in the capital city don't
answer those requests – they sometimes don't even receive them.
This happens because those local structures are the "tail end" of state
power, instead of being the "head" of the community. This was something
that the newly formed province of Artemisa tried to correct through a
pilot program, which was carried out with the "greatest of
discretion"…in case things turned out badly.
Just as the Romans foresaw centuries ago, centralization didn't bring
Cuba greater control – just the opposite. Since the capital was never
able to govern each corner of the country, people began making decisions
"on their own."
The solutions to problems at the local level were established at the
margin of those "Roman laws." In Camaguey they began making cheese
clandestinely and in Matanzas marriages of convenience began popping up
so that people could live closer to all the tourists.
Families that received farm land for free from the government were
prohibited from building homes on these properties, so they erected
"barns" for storing tools and equipment (an imperceptible way to start
Cuban socialism has operated as if all citizens have always defended the
same interests. In this way the unions, civic organizations and
political structures each wound up losing their distinct essence…their
reason for being.
Negating problems don't make them disappear
Some laws are implacable and legitimate, but dialectical contradictions
of society don't disappear because a government denies their existence,
they simply fade into secrecy and continue incubating, hidden from sight.
Those contradictions are sometimes bitter swigs for the local community.
During the closing of the sugar refineries I saw men and women crying
in those bateyes while telling me about "their" freight cars, the scent
of "melao" (molasses) and the sounding of the daily break whistle.
Someone should defend those interests and serve as a counterweight to
central power. That's why when municipalities work well, the country
advances toward fuller democracy, increasing people's participation in
Cuban society seems to be beginning to understand the matter, as
interesting initiatives are now emerging. One of those has come from
economics professor Maria Elena Betancourt, who is proposing that
tourism serve as the motor of local development.
She argues that, "Sustainability can only be reached by those
jurisdictions that make their own investments. This goal will be met
when they're able to produce the majority of the supplies and resources
demanded by their activities, even guaranteeing their own labor force."
If municipal taxes and wages were added to the profits of such sectors,
it would mean an increase in the quality of life in those communities,
not to mention higher incomes for their residents…without any need to
violate the law.
It's true that there will be unequal regional development and that some
Cubans will live better than others, but what's certain is that the
residents of the Varadero resort community always had a higher quality
of life than the rest of the country's citizens.
With financial, administrative and political autonomy, the
municipalities could solve many of their local problems. But the key
would be citizen's participation; otherwise this change would only act
to expand the bureaucracy even more.
Greater financial autonomy would mean institutional structures closer to
people, with the proper operation of these serving to unleash more
citizen initiative to the degree that they themselves defended their
rights and transformed these structures into tools for development.
It wasn't surprising that the report by Argentinean professors Stringini
and Sconda begin their article with the words: "It is tremendously
difficult to have good government without free municipalities; it would
be like a house without a foundation, or a tree without roots."