Democratic power of the people at the heart of Cuban socialism

Photo: An elected community leader shows anti-blockade activists a “neighborhood in transformation”

The following reflection was written by Mario Hernandez, an anti-blockade activist who recently went to Cuba to deliver medicine with the Hatuey Project

In the US, the atomization of our society has robbed so many of us of the joy and enlightenment that comes from working in tandem with our neighbors to build a better community and a better world. In Cuba, the opposite reality prevails. 

When I was in Santa Clara, Cuba, I talked to Rosie, who works for ICAP, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples. She told me that apartment buildings in Cuba are organized in the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) so that everybody in them has the opportunity to talk meaningfully to each other and to work purposefully together. In sufficiently large residential buildings, each floor is considered a neighborhood, and each floor has a president who facilitates the organization of that floor, calling meetings and moderating discussions. Every floor is like a team, and every building like a league. The only paid organizer in the complex is the building supervisor, who calls general assemblies of the tenants from all of the floors, to which each family sends a representative. 

At these meetings, tenants discuss the present and future of the building, what matters require redress, and how tenant life might be enhanced. The building supervisor also meets regularly in dedicated sessions with the floor presidents to discuss achievements and goals. Additionally, the supervisor looks after garbage disposal, landscaping, the volunteer clean-up by CDR members, the use of common building spaces, and so on. Through deliberate organization, apartment buildings cultivate vibrancy and humanity, as collections of interlocking and collaborative democratic communities. 

You don’t have to go looking for the people in Cuba. Popular immersion is a civic norm on the island. What would be considered subversive behavior in a capitalist economy is precisely what revolutionary Cuba encourages its citizens to engage in. Isn’t that what a democracy should be—the people working together as a community, not just consuming entertainment or shopping with friends, but collaborating in conversation and action with all of their neighbors in projects that will improve the quality of their lives? The more deliberate and disciplined a community becomes, the more self-awareness and power it has. 

When we were in Santa Clara, a key official involved in the management of the province’s electrical system told us that although Cuba’s goal is to convert its energy infrastructure to renewables by 2030, the country has the political will to transform its infrastructure to a fully green grid in a single year – if only the U.S. blockade could be lifted. What the official called “the political will” of Cuba was clearly the capacity of the organized people everywhere across the island to act purposefully on behalf of the greater good of the nation.

The specific organization that works in the buildings that Rosie described is the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDR. CDRs are neighborhood volunteer corps operating throughout Cuba, and all Cubans are encouraged to become activists in their neighborhood CDRs starting at age 14. CDR members attend regular meetings, share community information, assess current conditions, strategize new directions—and thereby revolutionize everyday life.

The CDRs can potentially concern themselves with anything their neighborhoods need—social work, daycare and eldercare, employment, safety, construction, renovation, and housing; they can identify and help care for physical and mental illnesses, alcoholism, poor grades—along with leaking roofs and plumbing and electrical problems. When family relationships become problematic, and mental health in and around the home deteriorates, the community can act through the CDR network, providing conversation, counsel, and support to the affected parties, and referring neighbors to doctors, social workers, and psychiatrists or psychologists where necessary. 

Sometimes CDR projects require expertise or financial resources that the community itself doesn’t possess, and needs to be accessed through cooperation with the national government. Once that cooperation is approved, changes will be effected through these same CDRs, only now with municipal advisement, special expertise, and funds. In situations like these, the initiative to meet the community’s needs is called a “transformation.” This process was accelerated after the disturbances of July 11 last year. Instead of police repression so common in the United States, the national, provincial and municipal governments worked immediately to identify the neighborhoods that needed immediate attention to rebuild common public places like clinics, schools, roads, sewage and other infrastructure, as well as housing for the families most in need.

Camilo Cienfuegos is a “Community in Transformation” in the East Havana municipality of Havana province. There, the local CDR and one of the community’s municipal delegates participated together in the renovation of residential buildings, and in the expansion of daycare centers and primary schools. The organized people constructed a playground and restored a general market for the neighborhood of 1,000 people, in addition to opening a seafood market, produce market, pizzeria, bakery, and furniture store. 

We visited a second community in transformation named Julian Grimau in Villa Clara, where delegates and CDRs teamed up to construct a post office and a gas station. In a socialist economy like Cuba’s, development is the democratic responsibility of the organized people—not of corporate interests. Socialism cultivates and expresses itself through creative collective activity, unlike capitalism that expresses itself through gentrification and removal and displacement of whole neighborhoods and working-class residents. The U.S. system of so-called democratic government pales in comparison to the tight weave of participatory democracy that constitutes the fabric of Cuban society.

Whereas in the United States it is easy to live an alienated and solitary “democratic” life, in Cuba, the society is organized to make isolation as unlikely as possible. The Cuban people amplify each other’s voices and abilities through community integration. Cuba takes the democracy and power of the people more seriously than anything I have ever seen in the United States. The sovereignty of the united people is what the Cuban revolution is all about. 

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