Cuba: Women, Local Elections and People’s Power

PLACETAS, Cuba, Oct 19 (IPS) – Marisol Cabrera has become quite at ease as president of the municipal government of the Cuban town of Placetas. But nine years ago it was another story, and she herself had doubts. "I wondered whether I was capable of this, it felt like a huge challenge. There was no tradition of women in this post," she says.

The town was also going through some hard times. Early this decade its three sugar refineries closed down and the industrial sector declined because of a shortage of raw materials.

Conversion of the sugar plantations into fields for crops and cattle and diversification of production in some of the factories averted collapse.

Placetas, a town of 71,000, is located in the exact centre of Cuba, 268 kilometres from Havana in the province of Villa Clara.

As tends to happen to women in similar situations, Cabrera had to work twice as hard as a man to demonstrate that she was up to the job.

"I have always been self-confident, but when I was elected president of the municipal government I had my doubts. I felt that I was on probation, and I drove myself hard. Now I don’t feel I have to be everywhere at once. We’re a team," she said.

First she had to overhaul the technical advisory council, which was not functioning. She sought cooperation from the Central University of Las Villas, and with their help set up a scientific network and trained new personnel. A consultation was held with local residents, and an assessment of Placetas’ most pressing problems emerged.

Then a local development programme was drawn up to pursue sustainable advances in agriculture.

"Since 2002, we have worked very hard. We learned to think things through for ourselves," said Cabrera, 52, who is married and has a 23-year-old son about to graduate in veterinary medicine.

"I’m a primary school teacher. As teachers, we are trained to guide learning processes, which makes it easier to communicate with people. To a certain extent, that training helped me in my local government work," she says.

On Sunday, Cabrera’s track record will come under public scrutiny as she and two male candidates stand in local elections for a delegate to the municipal Assembly of People’s Power (APP), and the people in their constituency cast their votes.

The municipal elections will be held all over the country, to be followed at an as yet unspecified date in 2008 by elections for the provincial assemblies and the National Assembly of People’s Power, the country’s single-chamber parliament.

To continue in office, Cabrera must be reelected as the APP delegate for her "circunscripción", or constituency.

"This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked what I would do if I’m not reelected. I always say that the job title isn’t what’s important. I would go on working for my country," she says.

Cabrera is one of 212 women who have a seat in the National APP.

Cuba is sub-divided into 14 provinces with 169 municipalities, and one special district (Isla de la Juventud, an island). At present there are 32 women presidents of municipal assemblies, and 33 women vice presidents. At provincial level, there are three women vice presidents, but no woman is president of a provincial APP.

In this round of municipal elections, which are held every two-and-a-half years, 37,328 candidates are standing for the position of constituency delegate in municipal APP. Of this total, 10,799 are women, 1,600 more than the number of women candidates who stood in the 2005 elections.

One delegate is elected from each constituency, from a field of at least two and up to eight candidates who have been nominated in neighbourhood assemblies by a simple show of hands. Later the delegates elected on Sunday will go on to elect the members of the municipal assemblies, and each assembly will choose its president and vice-president.

The system has its detractors, who argue that free elections are impossible without a multi-party system. But Cabrera says that in her view, it is one of the most democratic systems in the world.

"It isn’t the governing Communist Party that nominates candidates, but local people themselves, and the election doesn’t depend on how much money candidates have," she says.

As an example of participatory democracy, she points out that every two months delegates must report their actions to their voters, and they can be removed from office if people are not satisfied.

She also says that delegates are not magicians who solve problems at the wave of a wand, but are supposed to represent the needs and interests of the people who elected them, to state institutions.

"If the local people who elected the delegate have a housing problem, for example, the delegate passes the request on to the Housing Institute for a solution. It’s not the delegate who has to provide the solution," she says.

The Cuban constitution of 1992 defines the municipal and provincial APP as "the higher local bodies of state power, invested with the highest authority to govern under the law within their respective boundaries."

"For the exercise of their functions the local Assemblies of People’s Power find support in the People’s Councils and the initiative and broad participation of the population and they act in close coordination with the social and mass organisations," it goes on.

The National Assembly of People’s Power, which like the provincial assemblies is renewed every five years by a "free, direct and secret" vote, is "the supreme body of state power and the only body invested with constituent and legislative authority. It represents and expresses the sovereign will of all the people," the constitution says.

Once elected, National Assembly deputies must elect the Council of State from amongst their number. The council is made up of a president, a first vice president, five other vice presidents, a secretary and 23 other members.

The president of the Council of State, the office to which Cuban leader Fidel Castro was reelected for the sixth consecutive term in 2003, is the head of state and head of government.

But on Jul. 31, 2006, the Cuban president underwent emergency surgery and temporarily delegated his powers to his brother Raúl Castro, the first vice president and defence minister.