Whom Do They Serve? / Fernando Dámaso

Fernando Damaso, 28 June 2017 — Whether at the municipal or provincial level, the people’s administrative councils are supposed to be looking out primarily for the interests of their constituents and, in conjunction with them, carrying out the duties of local governance. But due to the inaccessible and very undemocratic Cuban electoral system, that is not the case.

Lacking any real power and without questioning what is meant by “the people,” these councils have for years simply carried out the orders handed down to them by higher-ups in government without concern for the needs of their constituents or responding to them in a compelling way. In a country where every worker was once an employee of the government, their inefficiency was just part of the broader inefficiency of the entire system.

With the advent of self-employment, or private sector work, they have continued to act in the same way, turning a deaf ear to the complaints and grievances of the self-employed, imposing bureaucratic measures under the guise that such taxes benefit the weak and needy. This demagogic, paternalistic position, far removed from reality, is not fooling anyone.

For evidence one need only look to the government’s recent “collisions” with private-sector taxi drivers, with homeowners in Viñales who rent out rooms to tourists (the government tried, without success, to force homeowners to permanently cover over swimming pools they had built on their properties), with construction crews (whose prices officials have tried unsuccessfully to regulate), with clothing and handicraft vendors (who continue to sell these items), with truck drivers transporting passengers in the backs of their vehicles (who were overwhelmed by endless and repeated demands for documentation) and many other similar examples.*

Even without established organizations to represent them, small groups of people with shared interests began pushing back against arbitrary demands by authorities, who were trying to exercise the same sort of tight control they had always exercised over state-sector workers without understanding that something had changed: a group or collective spirit had arisen that was at odds with the authorities’ interests. It is all still very new and appears to be primarily driven by a need for survival rather than by economic or political demands.

The original sin of the Cuban dissident movement has been that it has never actually represented any specific segment of society. Instead, it has been made up of independent agents who have assumed a critical and combative stance towards the system, gathering around them a few like-minded individuals. The exception has been the Ladies in White, which respresents the interests of family members unjustly sentenced to long prison terms for holding differing opinions.

At the moment, one cannot say that there is a real dissident movement, one that demands respect and fights for its rights, that represents specific segments of society, that is united by economic interests. This is, in truth, what brings about change.

As long as there are no solutions, these segments will grow, develop and gain strength. And every day the authorities will find it more difficult to maintain a hegemonic position of force.

*Translator’s note: In 2013 the government announced that independent clothing vendors would no longer be allowed to sell items imported from abroad, a major source of their inventory. More recently, private truck owners have been converting their vehicles to accommodate passengers in order to transport them from one city to another. In spite of the dangers this presents, such as the absence of seat belts, the service is more accessible than that of the state-owned bus company and much cheaper than buses catering to the tourist market.