Cuba, Citizen Participation and Associational Space: Some Notes

by Armando Chaguaceda Noriega1

What does “non-governmental” mean in a country with a statist tradition? Would not a better criterion for evaluating associations be the nature of their participation, especially the way that they promote community participation?

María López Vigil2

In recent years, Cuba has expanded participation within associational space, contributing to the gradual process of democratization within local government entities. This process has not been exempt from contradictions and setbacks stemming from exogenous (the U.S. threat) as well as domestic variables (legacies of underdevelopment and a statist tradition) that reflect a dynamic tension between the tradition of left democracy and the bureaucratizing tendencies typical of a state socialist regime. The organizational and representational traditions of these collective groupings can be analyzed by their political nature, by the type of nexus established with state institutions, and by their capacity to create autonomous discourses for constructing paradigms that are alternative or functional to the dominant paradigm in each social context.

The study of the participatory culture of experiences within associational space is a fundamental element of this analysis. This is understood as the social dimension that takes on (relatively) autonomous forms of assembly and collective action outside political and economic institutions which channel voluntary activity of citizens in diverse spheres of specific interest characterized by logics of reciprocity, solidarity, symmetrical interaction and defense of common identities. These actors include: 1) traditional forms of mutual aid (religious and charitable organizations, local community networks); 2) social movements (unions, feminist and ecological organizations, etc.); 3) civil associationalism (neighborhood, sports and leisure associations, etc.); 4) non-governmental organizations; 5) foundations and philanthropic research centers.3

The rebirth of associationalism in the 1990s arose from the simultaneous crises of the collapse in Eastern Europe, the retreat of the state as a socioeconomic agent, and the ideological and practical discrediting of state socialism. Additionally, decentralization on a global and regional scale increased with a proliferation of Cuba solidarity movements, and the emergence of new issues and popular demands around environment, gender, ecumenicalism and popular religious expression, and urban participation. At that time, the combined forces of communities, diverse foreign actors and the state eased the effects of the crisis, supporting the associational boom. The current associational space can be classified according to several typologies, depending on the variable employed. I propose the following four groupings: para-statal associations (PA), anti-systemic associations (ASA), sectoral or professional associations (SPA) and territorial or popular associations (TPA).

The Para-Statal Associations (e.g., Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, Cuban Workers Union, Cuban Women’s Federation) have structures, missions and symbolic repertoire heavily identified with the institutionality of the state and include all the large social groups in the country. As is typical of experience under “state socialism,” they are national in scope and monopolize the representation of certain associational interests and identities, to the exclusion of alternative structures of the same type. They operate in ways that are functional for the political system but they also provide an important form of social organization that formally is supposed to represent the interests and the opinions of their members before the State. At the same time, these organizations serve as mechanisms for transmitting official policies and propaganda and for social mobilization around these, while constituting spaces that provide some degree of social welfare. A degree of rigidity, uniformity and inertia have become embedded in the styles of some of these organizations. Some have greater legitimacy and reformist potential (such as the Federation of University Students), depending on their ability to represent the differentiated and autonomous discourses of the sectors they represent.

Anti-systemic associations, such as opposition groups and some organizations tied to the Catholic Church, are considered “political opposition” and their membership and internal influence are as often exaggerated as undercounted. Nevertheless, we have a different understanding of their position than we did of the counterrevolution organized in the 1960s and ‘70s. In the latter case, the groups involved illegitimate remnants of the old order committed to stopping the transformative wave of the revolution, and thus were opposed to the progressive movement of history. The current opposition is more complex in that it represents disagreement of a sector of society in an environment that restricts any form of organized dissent at the same time that it embodies the subversive project supported ideologically and materially by Western governments, which delegitimizes it for the majority of the population.

The research on which this paper is based focuses on sectoral and professional organizations and their territorial or popular counterparts. There are about 2,200 civil associations of the first type. These organizations are characterized by a tendency toward professionalization and institutionalization, they have significant budgets and the ability to obtain external funding, and they tend to be stable and selective in membership. These associations develop complex programs and projects in a variety of areas and have formalized leadership with significant levels of professional training.

Territorial or popular associations, in turn, are made up of neighborhood movements affiliated with structures like the Workshops for Comprehensive Neighborhood Transformation and a variety of community projects supported by Cuban and foreign NGOs. They have a local identity and essentially do not build networks, tending toward informality and territoriality. They have limited access to resources and depend on exogenous funding, which they seek to self-manage with the goal of comprehensive transformation of communities rooted in socio-cultural concerns. They have a modest agenda characterized by focalized problems and their membership is loose and mass-based, with diffuse coordination and activism, unlike the leadership and membership found in more formalized spaces; women and professionals are frequent protagonists.

The state has played a contradictory role in the formation of popular associations. On the one hand, it supplies technology and material resources, such as organic urban agriculture and alternative construction, provides specialists in these and other fields (psychologists, planners) and pays salaries to members of the leadership team. Yet although the state implicitly recognizes the existence of these movements, it impedes their legal recognition, rejects the emergence of popular economic activities and attempts to absorb local productive initiatives. Nonetheless, these groups have created reciprocal relationships, such as neighborhood assistance, food distribution and school donations, encouraging voluntary community contributions from some self-employed workers and modes for cooperation when their services are contracted for the projects.

Observations of both the professional and popular organizations show how the political culture of associationalism often reproduces traditional patterns of authoritarianism, restrictions on democracy and clientelism. This is so even though the organizations incorporate practical alternatives, such as popular education, participatory planning and communal work, and seek to promote a more participatory and democratic society. In reality the relationships in these associations are as complex as the rest of the components of the social system, with collaboration, competition and conflict in the development of their interactive processes.4

All forms of collective action have participatory frameworks of their own, expressed in structures, dynamics and cultures and constructed from particular forms of organization and identity. For our purposes, citizen participation is understood as a process that, emerging from pre-political levels of collective action, assembles the activity of conscious and active involvement of the subject(s) in sociopolitical phenomena related to the constitution, exercise and ratification of power in institutional and associational spaces, and in the distribution of resources derived therefrom.

There are diverse visions of the opportunities and challenges for participation in Cuban associational space. According to Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, the veteran president of the National Assembly, “these organizations and others, such as peasant, professional or neighborhood associations, play a vital, organic role in society. They propose candidates for national representatives and provincial delegates. They are not only listened to, they directly intervene in decision-making. For example, the Tax System Law was widely reviewed by unions, yielding important modifications to the original text before it was presented to the National Assembly; the Agricultural Cooperatives Law was an initiative presented by the National Association of Small Agricultural Producers—it was debated by hundreds of thousands of members in all the cooperatives and from that debate emerged the final version of the project that was considered and approved by the Assembly.”

However, as pointed out by the sociologist Juan Valdés Paz, “advances in decentralization of powers, resources and information in favor of non-state sectors and local State entities have been more than insufficient. The institutional order is highly centralized in all facets; this is partly due to the environment in which it develops and partly due to institutional design and highly centralized political power. (…) The objective of growing and expanding popular participation in decision-making is hindered by the bureaucratic tendency of institutions in both systems, not only an excess of officials and procedures, but also decision-making without democratic accountability. Advances in decentralization and rationalization in institutions in the political and economic systems have been insufficient to bring about a greater retreat from bureaucratism.”5

However, as pointed out by the sociologist Juan Valdés Paz, “advances in decentralization of powers, resources and information in favor of non-state sectors and local State entities have been more than insufficient. The institutional order is highly centralized in all facets; this is partly due to the environment in which it develops and partly due to institutional design and highly centralized political power. (…) The objective of growing and expanding popular participation in decision-making is hindered by the bureaucratic tendency of institutions in both systems, not only an excess of officials and procedures, but also decision-making without democratic accountability. Advances in decentralization and rationalization in institutions in the political and economic systems have been insufficient to bring about a greater retreat from bureaucratism.”6

Mobilization and consultation are basic components of participation in Cuba within both institutional and associational spheres. Even though the associational universe is seductive as a space for democratic communication of demands and concerns, given the deficiencies in socio-political institutions, everything is not idyllic. In many cases the leadership is elected by the base but, once in place, becomes highly personalistic and largely unaccountable, leaving the members in a passive role of beneficiaries. At times leadership positions are the object of attention from state entities that express support or disagreement, even in some cases pressuring against the election of undesired candidates and marginalizing those who, once elected, are critical and autonomous beyond “officially admissible” levels, which are generally rooted in traditions of uniformity and monolithic rule.

Other factors that shape or limit popular participation include the nature of state institutions that orient, control and supervise the actions of NGOs, the ideological foundation of their discourse, the intellectual leanings of the leadership and the role that they play in the official intelligentsia, etc. Every association faces the challenges of defending contested and always precarious margins of autonomy, negotiating nonessential issues and principles, building bridges and making alliances within the associational spectrum and with foreign counterparts, and obviously, given the Cuban institutional reality, mobilizing local and global public opinion around decisive conflicts. True participation and commitment from members is a precondition for the vitality and respect that associations enjoy, but this is also true in the inverse.

Different cultures of participation exist in Cuba today without any of them being intrinsically “bad” or “good,” since they simply have different referents—historical, class or cultural—including the more traditional “passive” mode (I inform you, educate you and mobilize you) preferred by many of our institutions for historically valid reasons. Despite the need to move beyond the passive mode, in practice it still has a lot of strength. At the same time we find instances of “active” participation, which occurs on those occasions when the community assembles, identifies its concerns, defines an agenda of priorities, makes a plan, delegates someone to carry it out and then controls its execution.

At times the membership of associations is unaware of its participatory potential, adopting a passive attitude of waiting for material, cultural, identitarian, social or other types of benefits and sanctioning a wide range of barely democratic behavior from leaders. The actions and characteristics of these leaders depend on their personal trajectories, educational levels, and individual traits. It is important to deconstruct dangerous myths such as the proposition that there are specific profiles (age, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, etc.) which lead to, for example, the assumption that a young environmental leader who is black, poor and lesbian is an intrinsically emancipatory subject, since a large number of contextual and personal factors can bring forth a gamut of undesirable surprises.

Participation in associations satisfies individual interests identified with the central uniting issue of a group’s agenda and with a wide range of personal expectations involving quality of life as well as professional, affective, and communicative needs. Members remain active in their associations despite external difficulties, such as material hardships, legal limitations and institutional impediments. This engagement reflects commitment to the group. Significantly, this is true despite the effects of excess participation, or “multiple militancy,” that is common in Cuban society: citizens involved in para-state associations and party institutions may find themselves engaged in an array of meetings and assemblies that overlap with one another and that wear out their participants, in the process losing their potential effectiveness.7

Several approaches to participation currently coexist and are developed in participatory projects.8 One approach identifies participation with mere mobilization and defines its subject as the masses, which reduces its function to implementing State-designed policies. The other projects an image of a professionalized NGO, urban and efficient, that provides services to client populations and masters the sophisticated language of project management and the agendas in fashion with international development agencies, such as gender, violence, local development and environment, participation and citizenship.

Finally, there is a third appoach that equates participation with being in solidarity, autonomous and self-directed.9 This approach defines its actors as active citizens and expands the vision of a responsible associational space that shares and co-manages activities with state institutions from the perspective of a critical commitment to the socialist project. These positions have very complex generational, territorial and cultural correlates that locate them in diverse points of our spatial and human cartography. Their ideas are expressed, implicitly or explicitly, in texts, debates and processes deployed in diverse scenarios throughout the country (see table).

Projects Traditional State socialist paradigm Citizen Libertarian socialist paradigm “NGOist”
Participative/Orientation Anti-neoliberal emphasis Anti-capitalist emphasis Professionalized, development assistance, mercantile paradigm
Subject Invoked Masses/Workers Workers/Citizens Citizens/Clients
Ideas & Values Discipline, Commitment, Unity, Solidarity. Responsibility, Initiative, Autonomy, Solidarity, Citizenship Efficiency, Solidarity, Philanthropy, Subsidization
Action Mobilization and Consultation Comanagement and Implementation Consultation and Consumption
State-Civil Society Roles (Ideally) Active State Passive Civil Society Proactive State Corresponsible Civil Society Passive State Active Civil Society
Principal Objective Implementation of public policies Codesign and perfecting of public management Social intervention that is redistributive, focussed, and assistance-oriented

What I have very imperfectly described in these pages forms part of something greater. There is a shared ethos among popular and middle sectors, marginalized groups and emerging identities throughout Latin America, who through participation propose new modes of doing and living democratic politics. They all strive for the ideals of autonomy by defining their space and norms of action, and of self-direction through the control and management of their own resources, and they deploy forms of horizontal organization in neighborhood committees, sectoral movements, capacity-building centers, and collective analysis and memory. They all seek forms of authentic and sustainable solidarity that respects diversity, and they choose development strategies that oscillate between distancing, collaboration or rupture with the dominant institutional framework in each country.10

In Cuba the game is not decided beforehand. Everything will depend on our ability to deploy the potential for creative citizenship that we used to survive the most difficult years of the crisis; it depends on the true commitment, wisdom and exemplary behavior of the political class, on the degree of exhaustion or vitality that the project accumulates and the realization of necessary corrective reforms capable of connecting the epic narrative with the demands of the people. In effect, the importance of the debate and action that is now unfolding transcends the mere exercise of elegant rhetoric, the rejection of mercantilist assistance and the defense of communitarian redoubts. This combination of factors will determine the destinies of the Cuban people for the next half century and the actions in train (and those that are possible) will decide which scenarios—dependent peripheral capitalism, bureaucratized statist socialism or libertarian socialist11—will be the triumphant project that the future generations of Cubans will experience.


  1. This essay summarizes research carried out with support of a grant from CLACSO-ASDI in 2006-2008. The original text and valuable contributions from colleagues can be found in Armando Chaguaceda (ed). “Participación y espacio asociativo”, Ediciones Acuario, La Habana, 2008.
  2. “Sociedad civil en Cuba: diccionario urgente.” Envío [Managua], (184), June 1997.
  3. Maritza Revilla Blanco (ed.) (2002). Las ONG y la política. Madrid, Ediciones Istmo.
  4. Based on my own observations and exchanges with interviewees, I have defined a typology of probable conflicts in associational space: associations with or without institutional support vs. state institutions; associations with or without state support vs. market spaces; associations vs. state-market alliances; associations vs. national or foreign associations with or without the support of other actors; and associations vs. unorganized communities where the associational actors insert themselves.
  5. See “La democracia cubana no se agota en la representación formal, sino que incorpora mecanismos y formas de la democracia directa”, interview of Ricardo Alarcón by Pascual Serrano,, 6/12/2003.
  6. See Juan Valdés Paz, “Desarrollo institucional en el “Periodo Especial”: continuidad y cambio”, in “Cultura, Fe y Solidaridad: perspectivas emancipadoras frente al neoliberalismo”, Armando Chaguaceda y Gabriel Coderch –Comp.-, Ed Félix Varela, la Habana, 2005
  7. See “Poder más allá del poder: reflexiones desde la experiencia cubana”, Elena Martínez Canals in “Cuba: sin dogmas ni abandono, Armando Chaguaceda (comp.), Ed Ciencias sociales, la Habana, 2005.
  8. See Dagnino, Evelina, Alberto J. Olvera, Aldo Panfichi (eds.) (2006). La disputa por la construcción democrática en América Latina. México, D.F., Fondo de Cultura Económica/CIESAS/Universidad.
  9. D’Angelo, Ovidio (2005). Autonomía integradora y transformación social: el desafío ético emancipatorio de la complejidad. La Habana, Publicaciones Acuario, Centro Félix Varela.
  10. See Hans Jürgen Burchardt (2006). Tiempos de cambio: repensar América Latina. San Salvador, Fundación Heinrich Böll, y Christian Adel Mirza (2006). Movimientos sociales y sistemas políticos en América Latina. Buenos Aires, Programa de Becas CLACSO/ ASDI.
  11. For an analysis of libertarian socialism that I share see Jorge Riechmann and Francisco Fernández Buey “Redes que dan libertad. Introducción a los nuevos movimientos sociales,” Ediciones Paidós, Colección Estado y Sociedad, Barcelona, 1994, pp. 152- 153.

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