COVID-19 and Some Lessons for Municipal Institutions in Cuba

“There are several groups of professionals and specialists working on issues involved in implementing decentralization, but in any case the new circumstances created by COVID-19 have influenced and could delay results and, therefore, its comprehensive implementation”.

*Havana University Faculty of Law

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

This article is part of the series Decentralization and the Municipalities: The Challenges of COVID-19.

The purpose of this series, coordinated by Professor Willy Pedroso, is to analyze the impacts of the crisis caused by COVID-19 on the road to decentralization and on incentives to local development which have been underway in Cuba since the new Constitution was passed. It proposes to examine the ways in which the crisis has highlighted or increased management as well as economic, productive, environmental and socio-cultural problems. It also attempts to discuss what kind of conditions (political, material, institutional) are needed if the municipalities are to play an active role in the national strategy for Cuban economic recovery  

1.What effects does COVID-19 have on the path to decentralization and on boosting the role of municipalities which had been underway in Cuba?

Decentralization means that municipalities have the decision-making power to determine and distribute public funds which gives them the ability to act on economic and financial matters. It also means that the income generated by the municipality is used for municipal initiatives and investment for local development tailored to the specific needs of each territory, by linking self-management to the Plan for the national economy.

The decentralizing project is essential if municipalities are to act autonomously. Decentralization could exist without autonomy, but there can be no municipal autonomy without decentralization.

Decentralization to the municipalities will become a reality when its own areas of competence are defined and a definition given of those other areas for which the municipalities must share responsibility with other territorial levels. Assigning powers to municipalities becomes a political and legislative process by which, when it comes to specific content, authority and resources are transferred from the central level to the municipalities, which are primary and fundamental political and administrative units of national organization.

There are several groups of professionals and specialists working on issues involved in implementing decentralization, but, in any case, the new circumstances created by COVID-19 have influenced and could delay results and, therefore, its comprehensive implementation. COVID-19 has affected all processes, modifies times, changes priorities and makes it imperative to give exceptional responses to certain situations.

Nevertheless, in practice, some of the positive and negative experiences the municipalities encountered in the fight against the pandemic, the worldwide crisis it is causing and the consequences of this for the country and territories, could give a boost to our decentralizing process of in favor of the municipalities.

The fight against COVID-19 has confirmed that the necessary self-transformative proposals for regional sustainable development and that of the country as a whole must originate in the municipalities.  This is why it will be essential, and consistent with the government's ethical and political commitment, to achieve the required harmony between centralizing and decentralizing state decisions.

2. Which policies and strategies would avoid a return to centralization (or to reversing the steps already taken, especially in a context of scarce resources ) and would give an impetus for the municipalities' role ?

Policies and strategies alone will not avoid a return to centralization. The Constitution of the Republic recognizes the principle of municipal autonomy and, since the Constitution is supreme, establishes the binding nature of its mandate on all: organs of the State, its leaders, officials and employees, organizations, institutions and individuals. Not putting municipal autonomy into practice would of course be a violation of the constitution.

In Cuba, the General Guidelines of the Party and Revolution´s Economic and Social Policy for the period 2016-2021 set the direction for the decentralizing process and the creation the corresponding legal framework. Guideline No.17 says “ As set out in the national strategy, there is a the need to bolster territorial development in such a way that the municipalities are strengthened as a vital level, are given the necessary autonomy, are sustainable and have a solid economic and productive base, and so that the most obvious imbalances between them are reduced, thus freeing their potential”.

The steps in the required strategies and policies could possibly be adjusted, but within the boundaries of the cited guideline, the direction must not be changed. Not only for formal reasons but because the country needs the municipalities to unleash their potential, needs each territory to encourage local export development projects, local food production, and import substitution, so that contributing to their own development, they also contribute to national development.

When resources are scarce, bolstering the decentralizing process in a Cuba needs a systemic vision which speeds up strategic decisions on integrated management for financing local development. This will include promoting municipal enterprises, encouragement  for projects involving small and medium business, for production and service linkages emphasizing local development, prioritizing innovation, food industry activities, local construction and other industries, social services, restaurant services, parks and sanitation, regional tourism, artisanal production, transport and communication services as well as other socio-cultural, environmental services and those which contribute to strengthening institutions.

These circumstances which stem from the fight against  COVID/19 confirm the need for a flexible methodological approach to implement a sustainable process which leads to transformations in municipal management; a process tailored to the specific characteristics of the municipalities, their concrete needs and interests, so they can satisfy the demands and expectations of local society in the region.

As laid out in the municipality's strategic plans, decentralizing policies, which prioritize processes for design and management of local development projects initiated in the municipality, should be implemented. These should strengthen the municipal enterprise system, foster economic cooperation between state and non-state actors based on co-management and co-financing of local development projects and, generally, consolidate production and service provision regionally.

This new scenario makes it imperative to find collective solutions for promoting citizen participation in local development management and financing by public tenders, presenting social and productive projects, by the people's legitimization of the selection of priorities and by communication and consultation to validate and control the process.

If the decentralizing process is to take place on the basis of principles such as participation and transparency, with the municipality assuming responsibility for the population and the locality , citizens must be able to influence decision making. Therefore, it is essential that in the policies and strategies which lead to decentralization, the processes for identifying the priorities and potential of each region can, from the outset, be designed from bottom to top, with the participation of municipal authorities, and oversight by the people.

3. What problems in municipal institutions have been revealed or augmented by the fight against COVID-19?

Analyses of the way municipalities fit into the political system predominate in studies on institutions; the essential coordination, both horizontal and vertical, between the powers and authority established by law for the various municipal bodies and levels; power relations; and the relationships established between the political, legal, philosophical and historical basic principles and the legal norms which establish their activity

Analysis was centered on municipalities, their institutions were going through a rocky phase before COVID-19,  given that the organization and operation of this level of regional power was confronted with a regulatory duality: on the one hand, long-standingregulations in place that did not completely reflect the reality they were supposed to regulate, nor satisfy the most common municipal demands; and, on the other hand, there was a new Constitution which brought new, significant changes to the authority and status of the municipalities but which still needed legislation to implement its proposals and clarify the new way of doing things, and these are mostly still being drafted.

Part of this reality too, was the fact that human resources in the municipalities need capacity building and citizen civic education, so that the authorities clearly understand what they must do to abide by the new regulations and to make their management more effective whilst the population gets more empowered and, as part of its exercise of its constitutional rights, increases its control, demands that decisions are implemented and oversees decision-making and executive processes by actively participating in a more committed way with People's Power.

Given all of this, COVID-19 has allowed us to see local strengths and weaknesses. The new structures born of the new Constitution have made their debut amidst the clamor of urgent demands; the results obtained in each case will teach us things and will allow us to make adjustments to various activities.

An observant citizen, without using in-depth academic analysis,  can appreciate that the ways municipalities are operating in the conditions caused by COVID-19 do not correspond to the cutting- edge views which characterized the new Constitution's proposals on, in particular, municipal autonomy.

It is true that in extreme crisis situations, concentrating decisions about vertical proposals helps to solve problems fairly and equitably, especially in the economic and financial conditions of Cuba, made worse with the tightening of the US blockade; but the impact of COVID-19 is occurring at a time when the municipalities should have begun to learn to behave responsibility in a new and autonomous way, similarly provincial governments should have been using their constitutional powers to help harmonize the province's own interests with those of its municipalities. This situation has meant that both regional levels are resistant to change, something that will have to be corrected if we are to be able to achieve the decentralized multi-institutional cooperation the Constitution and the Guidelines bid.

Nevertheless, each municipality reacted in its own way to the unusual needs and solutions created by the pandemic: prevention, health and hygiene measures were put in place; initiatives to prevent crowds in shops and to disinfect markets were deployed; products and merchandise were distributed in a way that reached most citizens equitably; food production was encouraged and other measures related to  epidemic foci and events were implemented

Nevertheless, decisions about COVID-19 were, for the main part, centralized. The municipalities, for example, did not exercise their constitutionally-given power (in Law No 132, on the Organization and Operations of the Municipal Assemblies of People's Power and those of the People's Councils, passed recently, to pass regulations to create the requisite Ordinances which would guide the specific actions of each municipality to serve the concrete needs of each region, in accordance with the law.

The population was paying attention to national level decisions and only in isolated or extreme cases did the visualize what the municipalities were doing. Decisions which, moreover, because of their nature and content, when concerning institutions, continued to confuse the nature of the functions of the various bodies, emphasizing the administrative functions of bodies which are of another type, such as the Municipal Assemblies and the People's Councils.

It became clear that not much was known about good management practices at the municipal level, as did the need to create or strengthen, whichever may be the case, ways of getting municipal information out to the local population.

To sum up, COVID-19 has also provided many lessons to municipal institutions.

4. Has municipal management reached its full potential?

In my opinion, the municipalities have not yet reached their full potential. Certain legal regulations in force, the inhibited thinking of some of their authorities, the rigid ways of cooperating with higher levels, the lack of practice in responsibly creating initiatives, the limited ability for government work of some leaders, among other things, are preventing the municipalities from spreading their wings.

The impact of COVID-19 has confirmed the need for municipal economic self-management based on self-financing and sustainable income creation so that local needs may be satisfied and imports substituted.  Similarly, it has revealed the crucial importance played by endogenous resources of all kinds, professional, social, cultural, historic, institutional, in transforming the local economy and achieving sustainable development. It has also shown the need for designing municipal strategies aimed at finding short-term solutions which contribute to municipal self-management and self-sufficiency.

Nevertheless, contrary to what was customary, above and beyond what the laws allow today, COVIID-19 has determined, and given a crucial impetus to, the creative actions of many municipalities, (but not all) in food production and in providing services to the population

The exceptional nature of lived experience makes the municipalities spaces that our country can assess post COVID: what have been their contributions, what were the best territorial initiatives, and above all what have they revealed about the obstacles, shortages and weaknesses which in day–to-day activity impede progress and better local results.

The motivation and impetus the Government of the Republic has given to the role which the municipalities must play in the economic and social development of the country is very positive for deploying tasks and new ideas in the territory.


Translation: Janet Duckworth

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