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International Socialism, Autumn 1983


Peter Binns

“Popular Power” in Cuba


First published in International Socialism Journal 2:21, (Autumn 1983), pp. 135–44.
Copied with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


To understand the way Cuban politics has been institutionalized in recent years it is important to examine its roots in the 1959 revolution. [1] The revolution was, it is true, a revolution against a hated dictator, Fulgencio Batista; but it was his corruption, cruelty and subservience to American interests that created the collapse in support for him rather than the fact that he was a dictator. In fact most Cubans were well aware that the same Batista had ruled both with the corrupt politicians and ‘democracy’ and without them too at various times. Not only was there very little support from the urban and rural masses for a return to parliamentary democracy as a result of this, but active hostility to it. In fact the only time Castro seems to have been booed by an audience was in Las Villas in 1959 when suggesting a return to parliamentary democracy [2].

Instead the early years of the Castro regime established what became known as ‘direct democracy’ – Castro would on the one hand address huge open-air assemblies on the priorities of the day [3] (receiving adulation comparable in size and fervour to that which the Pope has received in the last few years), and on the other hand would rush from a factory here, a housing estate there, a peasant cooperative elsewhere to examine, solve, troubleshoot the problems (including the minutiae) that government edicts were frequently coming up against.

In comparison with what existed before most workers and peasants saw this as a definite advance. Much better to have an uncorrupt set of rulers who do certain minimal things at least to improve your welfare than any number of representatives who you can vote for but who will promptly ignore you. ‘Direct democracy’ then, was that very familiar animal, populism; though it must be said, at the time there were many in the West who tried to dress it up as a form socialism (in the case of Jean-Paul Sartre, for instance, the very highest form of socialism [4]).

But no kind of a social system can get very far on such a basis. It works up to a point and in certain conditions, but not beyond that point. In Cuba so long as it seemed that production could be improved by moral exhortation ‘direct democracy’ had a use – particularly with a popular and charismatic leader like Fidel to do the exhorting. But that period definitively ended with the disastrous 1970 sugar harvest, requiring new and improved means of connecting the rulers with the ruled. The question was – how was this be achieved? [5]

The immediate response was to look to the existing institutions created or expanded in the first few years of the revolution – the trade unions on the one hand and the ‘mass organisations’ on the other. However there were distinct problems and limitations within each of them.

The Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC) was reformed in 1970. It and its 23 affiliated unions were set up to perform the function of helping to manage the workers rather than to represent them. Their aims were to be to ‘stimulate production’ and to foster ‘a new collective attitude toward work and social property’. There was not a word about them defending the interests of the workers against. the bureaucracy. Quite the reverse; they were there to squeeze the maximum effort out of the workers themselves. As a result most of their energy was devoted to various productivity campaigns – the ‘millionaire movement’ on the land (in which each 21-person brigade that cut a million or more arobas of cane was specially rewarded), the national ‘emulation’ working competition (in which those who drove themselves to their physical limits were awarded ‘National Hero of Labour’ medals) and so on. [6]

Yet it is important to understand that local union officials are elected, not appointed. Why? If it is only part of the unions’ brief to enact decisions downwards from the top and never the other way about what is the point of this exercise? Fidel Castro himself has been very clear on the reasons for this: ‘If the worker has really been elected by a majority vote of all his comrades, he will have authority’. [7] In other words the purpose of the exercise is to ensure a better control of the working class by the state authorities.

The ‘mass organisations’ have been in a rather different situation. There are mass youth organisations, mass womens’ organisations etc., but by far the largest and most important are the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), to which more than half the adult population belong. [8] Formed during the early 1960s when a US invasion looked imminent, they took the form of block-by-block and street-by-street committees and were designed to root out fifth-columnists in the community. More recently however, their role has been confined to organising voluntary labour and to combatting the increasing ‘attacks on property’ by such measures as requests for more policemen and so on.

The membership of the CDRs – running to several millions – is certainly impressively large, but why exactly do ordinary workers participate in them? Are they signs of Cuba being a qualitatively different society from our own in the West? All the indicators point to a rather more mundane explanation. A recent article, for instance, argues that ‘... there is no way not to belong. or else you are really asking not to get anywhere in life’, and points to the fact that it is virtually impossible to get an apartment, a better job – or even a refrigerator – without being a CDR member. What is more this influence is very pervasive, extending to all areas of life. For instance:

... the most popular TV programme in Cuba, Parabailar (for Dancing) which is a dance contest, requires that in order to participate you must participate in voluntary labor and belong at least to the CDR, or other so-called mass organizations, or the Communist Youth. [9]

Perhaps, under these circumstances, the wonder is that only 50% of the population are members of the CDR.

With a leadership appointed through the central bureaucracy of the Communist Party and with no powers to formulate policies, the CDRs certainly cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be seen as anything other than bodies – mass bodies certainly – for the incorporation of the working class and of its subordination to the regime.

‘Popular Power’

In the latter part of the 1970s, however, a new set of institutions appeared, this time under the heading of ‘Popular Power’, and enough time has now elapsed for their actual workings to become clear. Their novelty was twofold: (i) they were the first bodies with supposedly legislative powers whose membership was open to the working masses, (ii) many representatives were actually elected to these bodies.

‘Popular Power’ exists at three levels, national, provincial and municipal. The edicts of the National Assembly of Peoples Power are binding on the handful of assemblies that exist at provincial level, and theirs in turn are binding on the 169 assemblies in the municipalities. There are direct elections at the municipal level only; the Provincial and the National Assemblies being elected by the Municipal Assemblies. A great deal depends, therefore, on the bottom rung, the election at the municipal level, and it is to this that we now turn.

To be elected to the Municipal Assembly one must first be nominated by one of the half-dozen or so ‘Neighbourhoods’ in the constituency (or ‘Circumscription’) at a meeting at which all residents may attend. A secret election based on universal suffrage then follows for the nominated candidates.

However, although the Assemblies are supposed to have legislative power, no candidate is allowed to present his or her legislative policies (or any policies for that matter) to the electorate for consideration. This is strictly forbidden and no campaigning is allowed. Instead the election is conducted solely on the basis of the biographies of each candidate that are drawn up and published by the election commission. The election commission, however, is not itself elected but appointed, most of its members being put there by the Communist party itself. [10]

Even when elected the municipal representatives find themselves severely restricted. They are forbidden to discuss national or provincial matters, and they do not even have a free hand in their own localities for on any important issue they will in any case be bound by the decisions of the higher assemblies at the provincial and national levels. In short, even at a local level, their tasks are virtually confined to implementing policies formulated elsewhere.

Just in case these restrictions are not enough, the CP bureaucracy has another weapon at is disposal. Elected representatives – even when perfectly properly elected – can be dismissed; and the evidence suggests that around 3% of them are dismissed. Who by? Several bodies have the authority to do this: the Municipal Assembly, the municipal CP branch, the municipal leadership of the local CDR (themselves appointed by the CP of course), and any one of the higher bodies of ‘Popular Power’. [11] This right is extended to any 20% of the local Circumscriptions’s electors, though the practical problems involved in them doing this independently or against the wishes of the bureaucracy in the CP are obvious.

There are two ways of removing a representative from office. The first is the process of ‘recall’, in which the initiative is taken at the constituency or Assembly level (almost invariably initiated by CP members, or by or through the appropriate CP organisation). The second is the process of ‘substitution’, a category that includes both natural barriers to a representative continuing (such as illness) also barriers that are a product of the administrative decisions of the bureaucracy – for instance relocating someone’s job elsewhere. One (not very reliable) source lists a total of 77 cases of the former process as against 666 cases of the latter for the National Assembly up until June 1978. [12]

Essentially however, the limitations on the Municipal Assemblies of Popular Power derive from the fact that all real power is invested in the higher organs of the state. What then of these higher bodies, in particular the Provincial and National Assemblies? Let us look at he Provincial Assemblies first of all.

Both the Provincial and the National Assemblies are elected by the Municipal Assemblies. But the choice open to the municipal representatives is a restricted one; they can choose among a restricted slate of candidates drawn up by an election commission composed of the CP, the Young Communists, and the CP-appointed leaders of the local CDRs. Those who the latter do not approve of are simply left off the slate. In theory the Municipal Assembly can alter the slates, but I have yet to find an example of this happening in practice. [13]

But in any case the Provincial Assemblies meet for a total of just four days in the year. Everyone in Cuba knows that they can do little more than rubber stamp existing policy. Not surprisingly a Cuban Communist Youth Paper has this to say on a typical Provincial Assembly meeting: ‘... there was no debate, and the sessions suffered from a lack of analysis’. [14]

So, everything seems to devolve upon the National Assembly itself. Here surely there must be real power? Unfortunately not. For the National Assembly itself also only meets for a few days each year; and in any case it devolves its powers on to a 37-member Council of State. Nor is this all, for the Council of State, in its turn, devolves its power to an 8-person Executive Committee.

It is this tightly-knit grouping that then appoints the 68 presidents and vice-presidents of the ministries, who together make up the Council of Ministers, and which, in its turn, appoints a 9-person executive. It is the ministers that take the actual decisions – all the time under the close scrutiny of the Executive of the Council of Ministers on the one hand, and the EC of the Council of State on the other. [15]

However it is not really a matter of ‘on the one hand ... on the other hand’ here, for an examination of the members of these top committees reveals that exactly the same personnel are involved in each of them. Furthermore they all turn out to be members of the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party [16], in which capacity they have been ruling Cuba for many many years before ‘Popular Power’ came on to the scene. In other words the Politburo of the CP has been able to determine not only who does and who does not get elected to the organs of real power in Cuba, but has also ensured that those who got elected ... were themselves.

Not only does the bureaucratic centre of the Cuban CP have a stranglehold on the institutions of ‘Popular Power’, but the process itself has, not surprisingly, led to an overwhelming number of CP members on the various Assemblies themselves. For instance the National Assembly of Peoples Power contains no fewer than 96.7% of delegates who are members (including candidate members) of the CP and the Union of Communist Youth. [17] For a party of only a few hundred thousand, this might seem to be a pretty remarkable figure – if, that is, one accepts that ‘Popular Power’ is what it is purported to be.

So whichever way you look at it, all real power is in the hands of the CP. The institutions that directly connect with working class life, like the trade unions, are institutions for the control of the workers; the ‘mass organisations’ like the CDRs on the one hand have no power, and on the other have their leadership directly appointed by the central bureaucracy; and finally ‘Popular Power’, on closer examination, turns out to be not so much a method for producing power from below – in spite of its name – but rather a different institutional form for the continued rule of the centralised bureaucracy in the CP.

That this is so is neither a surprise, nor an unintended consequence for Cuba’s leaders. The system only began to be put into practice nationally in 1976 after a carefully monitored pilot run in Matanzas province. At the time the reasons for proceeding with ‘Popular Power’ were made very clear by Raoul Castro. One of them was to provide the leadership with information about what was happening on the ground: ‘the delegates’, he said, ‘must collect all the complaints and suggestions submitted by their constituents and represent these before the respective assemblies.’ But, he argued, the primary reason was the following:

The delegates must learn all the reasons that compel the adoption of a measure taken by the state organs ... If a price goes up, the reasons behind it must be explained ... if a product takes longer than expected to reach the people, the causes must be explained ... and in each and every case the explanation must he convincing ... The delegates must demand on the floor of the assemblies they belong to, and of the corresponding executive committees, all the explanations they need so they can satisfactorily convey these to the masses. [18]

The role of the delegates then, is to improve and expand the information and data available to the regime, and to convince the electors to obey their orders. It is one of the more important methods of incorporating the working class into the existing status quo, one which is a much more refined tool for the complex society that Cuba has become in the 1980s than the crude populism of the ‘direct democracy’ period in the early years of the revolution.

The Cuban Communist Party

Notwithstanding the outward appearance of the ‘mass organisations’ or ‘Popular Power’, the reality, then, is that of a Communist party with all-pervading power. Who then controls the CP itself?

Formally, as with the party in Russia under Stalin and Andropov, power is in the hands of the party congress. However, in the quarter century that has elapsed since the revolution, there have been only two congresses. Each has reelected without discussion or dissention the principal committees proposed to it by the Politburo; in itself this is hardly surprising because during this period political debate has been severely limited.

New recruits to the party must, it is true, be initially nominated by a majority of their co-employees (if they are workers), but this does not stop power in the party proceeding from the top downwards. This is true for two main reasons.

Firstly, whether or not someone is nominated, acceptance is entirely in the hands of the authorities within the party itself. Not only does the bureaucracy use this (and the extensive screening that takes place during the applicant’s candidate membership) to exclude those it considers undesirable, but the Central Committee has also regularly purged whole swathes of existing party members. A typical case was the June 1977 decision to recall all party cards and to readmit only those who were trustworthy so as ‘to tighten disciplinary measures within the party’. The central bodies of the party have absolute power to do this at any time they want.

Secondly, all appointments within the party are controlled by the party’s Secretariat – essentially the Russian nomenklatura system, but with Fidel Castro instead of Joseph Stalin doing the hiring and firing. And while the lower bodies of the party do elect the higher bodies, they only have the freedom to choose from a slate that has already been preselected by the higher body itself. Not surprisingly the top bodies of the party have changed hardly at all in the past twenty years. For all intents and purposes the Politburo, the Secretariat etc. are self-perpetuating cliques presided over by Fidel Castro, Raoul Castro and Carlos Raphael Rodriguez.

This itself is a product of the history of events in Cuba. In 1960 Castro, who until then had been a liberal nationalist, was faced with the problem of completely reorganising the Cuban economy in the aftermath of the USA breaking all trade links (80% of Cuba’s trade having previously been with the USA). At the same time this breaking of trade links, coupled with America’s open-door policy for Cuban refugees, brought about an almost complete removal of the class that Castro had earlier hoped would manage the new Cuba – the old bourgeoisie – across the water to Miami. On the one hand Castro saw a need for immediate structural change, on the other the instrument that he had previously envisaged carrying out any such tasks had all but evaporated. A huge power vacuum had been created.

The vacuum was not filled by the working class. In 1959 and 1960 it was not throwing up the soviets of Russia in 1917, the workers councils of Barcelona in 1936 or the cordones of Chile in 1973. The strikes that took place in the spring of 1959 were confined to wage demands and, in any case, petered out very soon after. After winning them the workers did not go on to push for further political demands; and thereafter the Cuban working class played no independent role in the unfolding of events at all.

This is where the Communist party entered the scene. Not having to face a militant class-conscious working-class fighting for its own interests, Castro was able to cobble together an alliance between the two remaining sources of power within Cuba: (i) the middle class dominated rebel army (in which Fidel Castro was the commander in chief), and (ii) the Communist Party itself.

Deeply entrenched within traditions of class-collaborationism, the CP was an ideal instrument out of which to build the skeleton of a new state capitalist ruling class. It had been a junior partner to Batista in the governments of the 1940s; Rodriguez himself had been a minister in one of them. The CP bought themselves into such positions by using their influence within the working class to ensure at least a moderate degree of cooperation with Batista. In return they were given official and semi-official support in extending their bureaucratic grip within the working class. In a sense they were the only institution from the pre-1958 status quo to survive the revolution. In the absence of a level of workers’ struggle sufficient to break the stranglehold of this bureaucracy in the initial months of the revolution, they became natural allies of fidelismo after the desertion of the old bourgeoisie to Florida.

The Castroites did two things to and with the party. On the one hand at the top they fused with its leadership, including some of the old leaders into a new leading layer (most notably, as we have mentioned already, with Rodriguez), while also excluding certain others (for instance Anibal Escalante); on the other hand they preserved its essentially bureaucratic internal mode of operation and its manipulative relationship with the working class itself. In short the Castroites preserved, and indeed strengthened the Stalinist structure of the CP while at the same time replacing its leadership with themselves.

In the last year reports have appeared which indicate a quite extreme reaction by the Castro regime to attempts by workers to set up a Solidarity type union within Cuba. According to reports reaching Amnesty International a number of workers have been jailed for the ‘crime’ of merely arguing the need for a genuinely free workers union. Still others, according to these reports, have actually been condemned to death (later commuted to life imprisonment) for doing the same thing. [19] While these reports are not confirmed, the extremity of the regime’s actions in such cases in general cannot be denied.

In these circumstances it is obvious how absurd it is for socialists to argue – as some do – that Cuba’s ‘mass organisations’ or the institutions of ‘Popular Power’ are signs of ‘The existence of a workers’ state with a revolutionary leadership’, the logical implications of which are ‘... that the Castro leadership team was superior to the Bolshevik leadership, once you leave aside Lenin, Trotsky, Sverdlov, and people like that’ [20]. To persist in such views can only lead to a continued weakening of the arguments for socialism. ‘Socialism’ without the self-emancipation of the working class is no kind of socialism at all – whether in Cuba or anywhere else.


1. This article does not attempt an all-rounded analysis of those events. Instead it is intended as a supplement to the analysis by P. Binns & M. Gonzalez in Cuba, Castro and Socialism, International Socialism 2:8, Spring 1980, to which readers are referred.

2. W.M. LeoGrande, The Theory and Practice of Socialist Democracy in Cuba: The mechanisms of Elite Accountability, Studies in Comparative Communism 1979–80, p. 40.

3. Assemblies of a million people in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion were quite common in 1960; even in 1962 the author witnessed comparable gatherings of several hundred thousands.

4. J.P. Sartre, Sartre on Cuba, New York 1961.

5. A fuller discussion of these circumstances can be found in Binns & Gonzalez, op. cit.

6. R. Staar (ed.), Yearbook on International Communist Affairs 1978, p. 365.

7. Granma, October 4th 1970. pp. 2–4 (emphasis mine).

8. Interview with S. Farber, Changes (Detroit), August 1980.

9. Ibid.

10. LeoGrande, op. cit., pp. 55–56.

11. Ibid., pp. 56, 59.

12. M Harnecker, Cuba: Dictatorship or Democracy?, Westport 1980, pp. 109–10.

13. Cf. the discussion in LeoGrande, op. cit., p. 56 on this question.

14. Juventud Rebelde, August 1977.

15. Yearbook, op. cit., p. 364.

16. Ibid., p. 364.

17. Harnecker, op. cit., p. 222.

18. Quoted in ibid., p. 114.

19. Amnesty International, Urgent Action, March 15th, April 25th and June 22nd 1983.

20. The quotations are from Intercontinental Press/Imprecor, Feb 19th 1979, pp. 159, 158 (emphasis mine). Since then ‘Popular Power’ has increasingly been used by the Fourth International as proof of Cuba’s alleged socialism.

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