Popular Power in Cuba


Thank you very much for your post I agree with you that there is probably NO story that is more "underreported" than this. But Cuba has been "underreported" for 40 years. By chance, hours ago I was looking at C. Wright Mills's Listen Yankee, written in 1960, after he visited the island. "That journey has forced me to the view -- a view which for a long time I had rejected -- that much of whatever you may have read recently about Cuba in the U.S. press is far removed from the realities and the meaning of what is going on in Cuba today," Mills said. He could have written it last week.

Even Cuba's own television and newspapers do not do justice to the extremely rich political life that finds expression in the organs of people's power -- or at least so think several comrades who work in them, and I tend to agree with them.

I think it is very hard to understand the "Cuban electoral system" if thought of in that way. I think it is necessary, instead, to view them for what they were meant to be: organs of people's power. And in that, it is especially important to appreciate how Cubans view themselves, and how the revolution fits into Cuba's history. I'm going to cover some of the same ground you did, because I want to emphasize something of special significance to Marxists.

As you note, the generation of Moncada did not view themselves as having started a new revolution, but as the continuators of the revolution that started in 1868 with the slaveowners freeing the slaves and the two joining together to fight for independence and social justice. The 1868 rebellion lasted for many years but was eventually defeated. But from the ashes of that defeat arose the Cuban Revolutionary Party led by José Martí, which organized the war that began in 1895.

The victory of the revolution then was also frustrated, by the U.S. intervention. Although Washington wasn't able to keep Cuba as a direct colony as it did with Puerto Rico and the Philippines, but it was to all intents and purposes a U.S. protectorate.

The first three decades of this semicolonial "republic" were dominated by repeated armed protests and uprisings and American interventions. In 1933 there was a mass popular revolution that overthrew the Machado dictatorship and installed in power a provisional government. An unstable revolutionary situation lasted several months but eventually a bourgeois government stabilized under the auspices of a wing of the armed forces headed by Fulgencio Batista.

Throughout those turbulent years elections were held time and again. The regimes that issued were differentiated only by the fact that the succeeding one was even more corrupt than the one it replaced. Following the defeat of the revolution of 1933-34, bourgeois normalcy returned, with the same result, until Batista staged his coup in 1952, which, of course, he legalized through elections shortly thereafter.

A few things need to be noted about this whole history. Like in the United States, the birth of Cuban national identity takes place with and through the war for independence. But unlike the United States, there is never "closure," and the identity of Cuban and revolutionary become intertwined.

A result of this identity and also of this history is that revolution becomes the source for political legitimacy,or as the lawyers say, La Revolución es Fuente de Derecho. Not so elections: they are a trick by the politically illegitimate to keep themselves in power.

How deep rooted the idea of a right to rebel had become in Cuba is illustrated by this striking fact. After attacking the Moncada barracks, Fidel and his surviving comrades were captured and imprisoned. But then they were released after serving only a couple of years, thanks to a popular movement demanding amnesty for the rebels.

When Fidel marches into Santiago in 1959, he claims victory not on behalf of the revolution initiated in 1953, but in the name of the one initiated almost 100 years before. It is a moment of great symbolism: the American's refusal in 1898 to let the mambíses march triumphantly into eastern's Cuba's largest city was but a foretaste of many humiliations for decades to come. But in finally "taking" Santiago, Fidel doesn't say the revolution is over, it's completed, not at all. He says now it can begin.

If you look over Cuban statements and speeches over the intervening decades, you'll see that the revolution has never been declared "over." This is a permanent revolution, although that particular term -- associated as it is with Trotsky's theory -- has never been used.

In my opinion, this is very closely linked to Fidel's belief --and I believe no Marxist has expressed it better-- that the building of socialism and communism can only be done by the conscious, collective decision of the working people. Nationalizing property and legal provisions aren't enough, and reliance on capitalist-like mechanisms can be counterproductive if not suicidal. The organs of people's power were designed with the conscious aim of involving the people in a more rounded way in the practical, day to day work of building a new society, of governing.

In this, they are the antitheses, in some ways, of representative democracy, which is structured as to delegate governing to a select group. The poder popular is meant to facilitate direct, "participatory" democracy, but not democracy for its own sake, but rather because only through the direct, massive conscious participation of the people can a new society be built.

The Cuban experience is, in many ways, unique. Unlike the Paris Commune or the Soviets, "organs of people's power" did not arise in the revolution. And whatever may be said about governmental structures in Eastern Europe and the USSR in later years, I think it can be safely stated that keeping the population actively mobilized and engaged in consciously building a new society, as a matter of conscience and conviction, was not the central consideration in their design.

Jose G. Perez