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People´s Power
review by Ken Estey

People´s Power: Cuba´s Experience with  Representative Government

Peter Roman People´s Power: Cuba´s Experience with Representative Government
Boulder, Colorado:
Westview Press - A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 1999,
$60.00, cloth.


The Elian Gonzalez saga provided another propaganda coup for apologists of capitalism and so-called democracy in the United States. Pundits across the nation concluded that whichever side one chose in the custody battle between Elian´s father and his Miami relatives, it was indisputable that Cuba is a totalitarian nation. Many argued for reuniting Elian with his father but agreed that his eventual return to Cuba would be the real tragedy since the United States is a democracy and Cuba is a dictatorship, ruled by Fidel Castro.

The U.S. judiciary is deciding currently upon the final stop of Elian´s extended and arduous journey. While it does so, read Peter Roman´s fascinating and comprehensive account of Cuban government at the municipal level. His detailed, firsthand account of local governance in Cuba is a most timely counterargument to the simplistic analyses characterizing current public discussion about Cuba. Roman´s singular and most welcome achievement is to show how concrete and meaningful decision making occurs in Cuba without having to focus on Fidel Castro or the role of the Communist Party. Simply labeling Cuba as a dictatorship misses entirely the lively, ever evolving and, yes, messy form of democracy in everyday Cuban life that often exceeds what most citizens in the United States have ever experienced.

This book is a successful attempt to address the paucity in studies of local representative government in socialist states by using Cuba as an example. Yet this is far more than a case study. Roman´s main objectives are “to understand the Cuban local parliamentary system as a product of socialist theory, history, and economics, and to determine to what extent it has been an effective instrument for political participation in governing and in providing input for local and national policy.” (p. 6) His ultimate concern is to evaluate whether a “local parliamentary system can be considered legitimate, representative, and effective in the absence of oppositional politics, electoral campaigns, and a multiparty system.” (p. 6) People´s Power does not deal explicitly with cooperatives as such. Yet an understanding of the governmental context in which Cuban cooperatives operate is indispensable. One is enabled to grasp the executive and legislative framework in which cooperatives across Cuba are situated. In addition, Roman´s book suggests to this reviewer that the practice of self governance at the municipal level may well be the “school” where many Cubans absorb the ethos necessary to manage or participate in any given cooperative. While it could be argued that cooperatives themselves do the same for local, municipal governance, read Roman´s book and decide for yourself.

The extraordinary detail of Roman´s descriptions of municipal government (and even provincial government in Cuba) is made possible by his extensive first-hand field research from 1986 to 1998. His presence at municipal, provincial and National elections (all three levels of Cuban government), his attendance at municipal and provincial assemblies, and his numerous interviews and dialogue with municipal delegates lends a vividness to this account of Cuban self determination that is a delight because it is entirely unexpected in a U.S. governmental and media context that insists on very flat and two dimensional fixations on Fidel Castro.

The expectation that Roman might start with the Cuban Revolution is quickly put to rest upon a reading of the first two chapters. Whether one considers it a bonus or necessary theoretical background, one is treated to a resumé of early theories of socialist representative government. Sketches of Rousseau, Marx and Engels and the Paris Commune of 1871 are succinctly presented. Cuba´s form of government did not arise de nouveau but is theoretically grounded in political considerations on the nature of equality, political and civic society, true representative government, and the necessity for a new state structure based on the rule and control of the working class. The next chapter on Lenin and the socialist state shows that the Russian revolutionary process, particularly the 1905 and 1917 soviets, is a key example of “workers developing their own political structures and mechanisms.” (p. 31) The Cuban OPP - Organos del Poder Popular-or Organ´s of People´s Power (instituted in 1976), is greatly indebted to this rich history of worker political and economic empowerment. Indeed, the OPP is central to the idea and practice of municipal government in Cuba.

Dictatorships depend upon rigid mandates forced down from above. Who would expect then that, in Cuba, that a mandate system based on accountability to citizen´s complaints or concerns (planteamientos ) would characterize the heart of municipal governance? Who would imagine, that, in turn, these planteamientos on a collective level would have an impact on policy at all levels, particularly in the areas of housing and public health? The formation of municipal economic plans has provided inputs into provincial and national economic planning processes.

Roman concludes that Cuban municipal assembly delegates are legitimate elected representatives of the population who have become the embodiment of the integration of civil and political societies in Cuba. Their tasks are vitally important to the everyday, mundane but most pressing concerns of the Cuban population. To be a municipal delegate is rarely easy and never glamorous. One is elected to be a delegate, but it is volunteer work that is done in addition to one´s paid work. A delegate´s work is never done and the pressure to act from one´s fellow citizens is intense and unrelenting. The burn-out rate is high and delegates often do not seek a second term. Such is the price of democracy in a land under imperial pressures. Nonetheless, the accountability that this system demands at all levels of Cuban government is the foundation for Roman´s concluding claim that these “delegates can therefore be considered a vital, effective, and representative component of the Cuban government.” (p. 244)

The United States has much to learn about democracy from its Cuban neighbors. Roman´s contribution to Cuban scholarship and democracy studies demonstrates the plausibility of this claim. He also suggests by way of example how the U.S. might go about the task of reimagining self-governance for itself rather than casting aspersions elsewhere.

Ken Estey, Ph.D., is a member of the GEO Editorial Board.

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