The Promise Besieged: Participation and Autonomy in Cuba

August 16, 2011

After the triumph of Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the country established a state socialist regime based on the Soviet model. This model’s features are by now well-known: state-party fusion, the control and colonization of society by the state, and the systematic obstruction of society’s self-organizing capabilities. It has fostered a kind of militant citizenship that identifies state order with the nation, favors unanimity as a way of expressing identities and views, and encourages the social redistribution of wealth and the rejection of exclusion based on gender and race. However, the new revolutionary order established after 1959 also deemed alternative, non-“revolutionary” collectivities and identities—such as homosexuals, religious groups, and some artistic movements—as suspicious (and punishable), even if they did not necessarily oppose the revolution.

Given this legacy, exploring the contemporary relationship between the Cuban state’s policies of citizen participation, on the one hand, and practices of autonomy that emerge organically from society, on the other, can help us assess the current state of affairs in Cuba and explore the potential for greater citizen empowerment in the future. island-based researchers have studied the issue of the Cuban state’s policies on popular participation since the 1990s.1 However, the Cuban academy, even with its reputation as the best in the Caribbean, has not produced work on this issue that is on par with its treatments of other important problems, like territorial and social inequalities, racism, and generational conflict. The political nature of the subject matter, as well as the possible institutional constraints on research, have not favored those interested in the subject, be they professional researchers or the public.

Instead, most treatments of the issue have been superficial, with the necessary empirical references and concrete policy proposals cast aside in favor of abstract or normative interpretations, formal descriptions of the social order, or the use of trendy theoretical concepts that are “imported” without the necessary adjustment to the local reality. (These deficits are shared by foreign analysts who profess an uncritical defense of the Cuban government.2) Academic contributions are even more limited when it comes to practices of autonomy and self-organization in Cuba. Part of the problem is that autonomous organizations in Cuba have been made invisible both by power (as a sign of rejection) and by their own participants (as a means of survival). Meanwhile, most researchers have scarcely noticed, much less documented, such experiences.3

The current model of participation in Cuba emerged in the 1960s, when the counter-revolutionary opposition ended up in exile and defeat. The subsequent revolutionary process socialized millions of people who participated in social, economic, and political tasks directed by the state: literacy campaigns, agricultural plans, and large public assemblies. As pre-revolutionary forms of association disappeared, these gaps were filled by new mass organizations like the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and the Federation of Cuban Women, both organized at the local level. With time, these were joined by other professional and civil associations of, for example, farmers, lawyers, and environmentalists. Social rights to health, education, social security, and employment, together with cultural rights like access to artistic training and recreation, became preeminent in the collective imaginary. Civil and political rights, meanwhile, were to be conceived and realized only within state institutions and according to the new regime’s policies.

By the 1970s, dysfunctions in this scheme began to reveal themselves. Voluntaristic notions of political leadership and social development that appealed to human will, embodied in charismatic leaders and enthusiastic masses, came to obviate institutional mediation and popular deliberation. State-sponsored planning, investment, and production accelerated, generating administrative chaos (most dramatically in the failed 10 Million Ton Harvest of 1967–70, when the Cuban state launched a campaign to produce a record amount of sugarcane). As a result, the institutional order was restructured more closely along Soviet lines. Despite popular enthusiasm and creativity, both the personalism and institutionalization of the political regime and its rituals gained strength in subsequent years to the detriment of more autonomous forms of participation. Following the state socialist model, a system of assemblies was formed, called Popular Power, and established at the local, provincial, and national levels, along with centralized ministries. An enormous, more or less professional bureaucracy was put in charge of this system, planning and managing public policy and distributing the economic surplus generated by workers.

The Cuban state has demonstrated its role as the defender of national sovereignty, sponsor of development, and guarantor of social justice through the redistribution of goods and services. But it has also proved its inability to satisfy a great number of Cuban society’s expectations for participation, with its vertical model of central management, in which top management positions in the state and in the Communist Party overlap and are occupied by the so-called historical leadership (that is, Fidel Castro’s generation of leaders). At the lower levels there is usually a similar overlap among party leaders serving as government leaders; this is particularly visible in the provinces and countryside.

Genuine popular participation would require that people who are not formally part of the state evaluate and correct public policies, a role not currently played by the press or neighborhood associations, human rights defenders, consumers, or parents’ associations. Their participation would presuppose the state’s respect for and promotion of societal autonomy, which is under siege in contemporary Cuba. Without such participation, institutional performance has become symptomatically precarious, as centralization, administrative discretion, and personalism, from national bodies to local ones, have put a halt on collective dynamism and deliberation. In this system of organizing collective life, social spaces, whether organized or informal, tend to be subsumed or simply controlled by the state within an asymmetrical power structure.

The Cuban press constantly defines the country’s regime as a “participatory democracy,” while the citizen and the act of participating are viewed in a trivialized and restricted way, bearing the imprint of a state-centric system that weakens the civic commitment required to successfully implement changes. Since 2007 the government has employed classic administrative and technocratic solutions to address demands for improving institutional performance; these solutions include installing new officials to oversee other officials and shrinking the bureaucracy. But there has been no effort to expand citizen participation based on either the socialist traditions of bottom-up collectivities (workers’ councils, self-managed businesses, popular assemblies) or on contemporary democratic innovations that continue to emerge in many parts of Latin America (management boards, social auditing, roundtables). In preparation for the Communist Party’s various congresses, the state has sponsored National Debates that call for a broad discussion of national issues and prioritize consultative forms of participation, but they are territorially fragmented and thematically parochial.

Participation, as it is defined in practice, has a consultative bias in the sense that citizens’ discussions take place on courses of action that have already been outlined or determined at higher institutional levels, such as the State Council and Politburo. Thus, the possibilities for participation are minimized to individual voices and the limited aggregation of demands; shaping the agenda, its execution and control is off-limits. Policy corrections are exclusively up to the leadership, which operates with total discretion. This has been the experience in the debates ahead of party congresses (1991, 2010) and discussions of legislative initiatives, such as that of Labor and Social Security (2009), which had great social impact.

This fragmented way of exercising “participatory democracy” and the media’s failure to communicate the results of these debates to society prevented the differentiation between personal and social expectations. It also inhibited the formation of collectives capable of advocating policies—in an organized manner and in accordance with existing legislation—with key political caucuses like the Communist Party congresses or National Assembly sessions. This is how the socialization and political participation of the citizenry is repressed.

Participation is thematically parochial because in the so-called neighborhood accountability assemblies of Popular Power, the democratic potential is limited almost exclusively to summoning low- and middle-level officials for evaluation. The issues raised almost always deal with unmet demands for goods and services rather than procedural questions or other broader matters. In the end, although removing representatives by grassroots voters is rare, citizen protagonism in this forum, as well as the relatively greater transparency in institutional performance associated with it, are real. But they are limited by a vertical subordination of local organisms according to a conventional approach to the role of the Communist Party as a driving force for the community and the persistence of traditional models of leadership that are authoritarian and personalist. Meanwhile, participation is narrowly viewed as a means of mobilizing.

The Popular Councils, as territorial entities, gather people at the level of neighborhood streets and blocks, serving as channels for local participation. But their effectiveness is limited, and they have even fewer resources, which is why their promising expansion during the 1990s did not produce the expected results, as they were inserted within a vertical, centralized order (even when Popular Council Law 91 formally provides power to these entities for the promotion and stimulation of citizen initiatives). The weakness of the popular economy, the inexistence of urban cooperatives for anything other than agricultural production, the weakness of local and national association, and the absence of legislation and policies for (and from) municipalities have lessened the Popular Councils’ role as spaces for participation. As seems to be the case in various Latin American nations with, for example, Citizen Power in Nicaragua and Communal Councils in Venezuela, Cuba seems to now have a “sea of participation that is only an inch deep.”

If we add the accumulated material and symbolic exhaustion of the Cuban population after 20 years of socio-economic crisis and the debilitating effects of a vertical system (which so far has limited the resources and powers available to local authorities), one can understand that many people identify participation (and accountability) with traditional practices, thus limiting potentially emancipatory discourses. In this vein, the Cuban experience with popular education, beyond its attractive rhetoric, has not been able to become the generating principle of a liberating pedagogy because it is confined to work spaces and praxis in small communities—with limited impact on the dynamics of national life—and the evasion of an analysis of the structural factors that reproduce authoritarianism.4

Furthermore, social autonomy and the development of policies of participation are inseparable from the quality of political representation and the performance of accountability. Understanding participation as a process that stems from individual action by citizens and reaches collective forms that constitute practices and spaces of representation (managing and electoral councils, participatory budgeting, etc.) the relationship between participation and representation is complementary, given that the legitimacy and effectiveness of the two processes are presupposed. And social autonomy must be strengthened through policies of accountability that allow social actors to determine the responsibility and sanction governmental performance. This would presuppose interaction between social and state agents.


Pernicious consequences, both economic (crushing productive initiatives and self-management) and political (general demobilization), result from channeling “citizen initiative” through state and party structures and the “mass organizations.” Groups that are independent of the state, including those that are legally registered or recognized (including NGOs, cultural organizations, and neighborhood movements) are made invisible by the establishment and by conservative sectors of the academy. While such groups are recognized as playing subsidiary roles in social functioning, their non-governmental character is a cause of apprehension, and they are sanctioned when they contest the government’s decisions.

In the 1990s, a group of new civil organizations appeared: centers for training and services (some of them religious), foundations, fraternities, and Masonic lodges. These more professional entities had operating expenses and a membership that included some paid staff. The most powerful of them developed complex programs and projects in diverse areas and maintained a formal, stable leadership. They often functioned as mediators between governments, international groups, and various grassroots organizations, and they generally depended on external funding (private, governmental, or from foundations). Within this segment there were entities concerned with various themes, including sexual diversity, environmentalism, and popular education.5

In those years various neighborhood movements also emerged, many of them associated with initiatives like the Workshops for the Integral Transformation of the Neighborhood (TTIB) and other community projects supported by Cuban associations and their foreign counterparts. They were essentially local, with almost no connection among them; tended to be informal and territorial; and have limited access to economic resources. Depending on external sources, they functioned with neighborhood participation and prevalent women’s leadership. The TTIB were launched in the 1990s when multidisciplinary teams of planners, psychologists, and cultural activists expanded into 20 Havana neighborhoods with the purpose of working with neighbors’ participation, on community issues. Their work was assisted by the Group for Integral Development of the Capital, an entity for metropolitan planning, and they were closely linked to Popular Councils, which generated some conflict because of the latter’s traditional authoritarian leadership style and attempts to interfere with the TTIB’s work. Despite the group’s proved success, the group’s expansion to other neighborhoods in Havana and other provinces was limited by governmental decision.

Faced with these experiences, the state played a contradictory role, providing material resources and support to the personnel while blocking legal recognition and the consolidation of self-management in the popular economy, and trying to co-opt local productive initiatives.6 Even so, these experiences demonstrated reciprocal relations in the form of neighborhood cooperation, food distribution, and donations, and prompted communal benefits for self-employed workers as well as cooperative arrangements to contract their services for projects supported by civil associations.

Beginning in 1996 the state began restricting the expansion of new associations. They were excluded from the official Association Registry, new controls were imposed on existing organizations, and surveillance on external financing was reinforced. Ever since, rather than grow, the Cuban NGO community has shrunk. In spite of this, citizen interest in self-management and organization allows different participatory frameworks to enter state institutions and new associations, or spaces of contact between both—for example, through sociocultural projects—developing activities and performances that occasionally go beyond their formal objectives.7

The usual justification for these new measures is the increase in destabilizing U.S. policy, expressed in the approval of the Helms-Burton Act and its Title II, which proposed work with “civil society organizations in Cuba” as its main axis and identified them as anti-systemic organizations: opposition movements and parties, human rights groups, independent journalists, and so on. Consequently, many associations were reduced to very discreet roles (paying the price of near invisibility); others were shut down under the criteria that their functions would be assumed by the state (for example, the participatory urban planning project Hábitat Cuba). Some organizations were partly able to avoid these results because they enjoy special political protection or because of the importance of their international contacts (for example, the Martin Luther King Memorial Center), which allow them to maintain some impact within Cuban society and to benefit from foreign financial support.

Truncated experiences like those of the post- and neo-Marxist intellectual group Paideia (closed in 1990), the feminist collective Magín (closed in 1996), the leftist student space Che Vive (closed in 1997), Hábitat-Cuba (closed in 1998), and the environmentalist collective Sibarimar (closed in 2005) are a sign of the Cuban bureaucracy’s profound and instinctive rejection of autonomous social practices (known as autonomofobia). These groups, as well as other, lesser-known ones, suffered official repression and sanctions that led to authentic personal dramas of their members and founders, who were in many cases leading militants of the Revolution. Although they have not received the study and notice that they deserve, their greatest value resides in building initiatives for participation and activism outside the bureaucratic logic of Cuban institutions. These institutions, in turn, reacted apprehensively, seeing the autonomous groups as a threat to the symbolic monopoly through which they have always tried to simplify and represent the Cuban left in its entirety.

Fed up with this, alternative social groups have emerged in Cuba, born at the margins of institutionalism and inclined toward self-management and participatory leadership (see “New Autonomous Formations in Cuba,” page 22). They seek cultural experimentation and activism by creating spaces of autonomy and articulation, confronting the state and authoritarian mercantilist threats (be they internal or external). The initiatives include environmentalist and peace groups, art workshops and groups, community intervention forums, and workshops, among others. Notwithstanding this progress, these groups find it difficult to connect with each other, and they have organizational weaknesses, lack resources, and face institutional pressures. Their political culture and praxis is dominated by a form of “self-limited radicalism,” as the Polish dissident intellectual Adam Michnik put it, which supports the creation of autonomous islets within a society governed by a state-centric order.8 This is a valuable strategy for its civic potential and setting a precedent, but it is constrained by the disarmament and disarticulation that prevail at a social scale.

Through their interaction these collectives develop a particular way of being that comes from the intertwining of knowledge, affection, and shared values that evolve daily. With a more or less coherent discourse, they attempt to transform their communities through testimony and practice. There are still authoritarian positions and internal tensions, but they resolve these tensions and become aware of the nature of these conflicts in substantially different ways than those of traditional institutionalism: Words prevail over sticks.

It is difficult to provide a short summary of the current Cuban situation in regard to participation and autonomy. However, I am convinced that any proposal for a democratic and participative reform (not merely technocratic) of Cuban institutionalism has to learn from the structural crisis of the current socio-economic and political model. It must consider the strength that the global crisis provides some sectors of the bureaucracy that are eager to extend the militarized logic of the “country camp” or to make a pact with transnational capital in obscure and predatory ways.

Cuba needs to preserve national sovereignty, guarantee the development of a heterodox process of non-neoliberal economic reforms (with the participation of workers’ collectives, democratic planning, and regulated markets), and an expanded form of governance with citizen participation. It must also establish a popular control of the elites, control that can derail both bureaucratic counter-reforms and the privatization of national resources in order to advance toward a true socialist democracy.



Armando Chaguaceda is a Cuban political scientist and historian specializing in Latin American politics, a member of the Social Observatory of Latin America, and coordinator of the working group Anticapitalisms and Emergent Sociabilities of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO). He is the author and editor of various texts, including Democracy, Participation, and Citizenship: Latin American Perspectives (FLACSO–Costa Rica, 2008).



1. See, for example, Haroldo Dilla, Gerardo González, and Ana T. Vicentelli, Participación popular y desarrollo en los municipios cubanos (Havana: Centro de Estudios de América [CEA], 1993); Haroldo Dilla, ed., La participación en Cuba y los retos del futuro (Havana: CEA, 1996); Juan Valdés Paz, El espacio y el límite. Estudios sobre el sistema político cubano (Havana: ICIC Juan Marinello–Casa Editorial Ruth, 2009).

2. See Marlene Azor Hernández, “La izquierda y su relación con la Revolución Cubana,” Nexos (Mexico City), March 1, 2011, available

3. There are, however, some works worth mentioning on this topic. See Armando Chaguaceda, “Ser, expresar, transformar. Los proyectos socioculturales como espacios de innovación participativa en Cuba actual: la experiencia de la Cátedra de Pensamiento Crítico y Culturas Emergentes Haydeé Santamaría (KHS),” ms. (2009), available at; Velia Cecilia Bobes, Los laberintos de la imaginación: repertorio simbólico, identidades y actores del cambio social en Cuba (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2000); Armando Chaguaceda and Johanna Cilano, “Entre la innovación y el inmovilismo. Espacio asociativo, estado y participación en Cuba,” Pensamiento Propio (Buenos Aires) 14, no. 29 (January–July 2009); Haroldo Dilla, Armando Fernández, and Margarita Castro, “Movimientos barriales en Cuba: un análisis comparativo,” in Participación social. Desarrollo urbano y comunitario, Aurora Vázquez and Roberto Dávalos, eds. (Universidad de la Habana, 1998).

4. See VOCES: Comunicación Alternativa, “Educación popular: participación ciudadana” (2010), available at

5. Chaguaceda and Cilano, “Entre la innovación y el inmovilismo.”

6. Dilla, Fernández, and Castro, “Movimientos barriales en Cuba.”

7. Chaguaceda and Cilano, “Entre la innovación y el inmovilismo.”

8. Cited in and developed by Andrew Arato and Jean Cohen, Sociedad civil y teoría política (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002).


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