Local Development with Equity: A (virtual) Debate on the Post-COVID-19 Context in Cuba

“In order to guarantee equity in the post-pandemic context, local policies relating to the distribution and access to vital resources will have to be rethought, taking into account the characteristics of each region…”

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

This article forms part of the series Decentralization and municipalities: the challenges of COVID-19.

This series, coordinated by Professor Willy Pedroso, aims to analyze the impacts of the crisis provoked by COVID-19 in the course of the decentralization of and the stimulus to local development which Cuba had been considering since the approval of the new Constitution. The series aims to examine to what extent this crisis has highlighted or worsened problems of management, as well as economic-productive, environmental and sociocultural problems. In addition, the series intends to discuss what conditions (political, material, institutional) are required for the municipalities to actively intervene in the national strategy of economic recovery in Cuba.

Moderator: Willy Pedroso Aguiar (WP). Revista Temas


Geydis E. Fundora Nevot (GF), Latin-American Faculty of Social Sciences, Universidad de la Habana

Hilda E. Juliá Méndez (HJ), Centro de Intercambio y Referencia Iniciativas Comunitarias (CIERIC [Center for Exchange and Reference, Community Initiatives])

Mayra M. Espina Prieto (ME), Swiss Cooperation for Development

Adelaida Gómez Blanco (AG), General coordinator of the project ¨El Patio de Adela¨ and of the Ruta Cultural de las tradiciones en Guantánamo [Cultural Route of Traditions in Guantánamo]; member of the Programa de Desarrollo Local y Comunitario desde la Cultura en Municipios Cubanos (PDLC) [Local and Community Development-from-Culture Program in Cuban municipalities]

María Elena Grey (MG), Coordinator of the “Cultural Laboratory” project in Holguín; member of the PDLC

Marlén Z. Pérez Veriel (MP), Provincial Center for Cultural Improvement in Guantánamo.

WP: What modifications could COVID-19 cause to the course Cuba was taking on topics of local development with equity?

GF: At the international, national and local levels, we are already experiencing significant budget cuts and resource scarcity for implementing many of the strategies that had been planned. Although the commitment towards local development may be maintained, and will evidently be a key area to confront the vulnerable situations, I think that there will be significant tangible limitations that will force us to establish new priorities, force us to think about working more efficiently and with a more strategic vision.

I also like to see a positive nuance, and that is the fact that it forces us to find solutions based in resilience, starting with a more creative, autonomous resistance, less based on assistance and more self-sufficient from the regional, family and personal point of view.

I think that the vulnerability situation, caused by the health and economic crisis provoked by COVID-19, has opened the way and given more legitimacy in the public agenda for raising topics of equity and vulnerability. I think it has also strongly emphasized the vulnerable situation of certain age groups, as well as the development of a range of supportive actions that opened the way for this type of debate.

Another element is the fact that there occurred a flood of initiatives by civil society, and also a greater visibility of a collection of regional strategies, authored by the Defense Council [Consejo de Defensa] which placed the opportunity for a more decentralized management system into the social imaginary. This could have positive repercussions for the future of local development, because people had contact, and visualized another type of agents being associated with their social protection and well-being.

However, there is also a pile of negative elements. For example, progress had been made in the identification of regional profiles of vulnerability. Important steps had been taken to achieve some consensus relating to what our vulnerable groups are, and these definitions will now have to be reviewed, and updated in light of the crisis.

The outbreak of the illness in Cuba again reinforced a vulnerability perspective more centered in age groups and people with disabilities; the topics of gender were touched on, especially in reference to domestic work, the heavy burden of care-giving, of violence; but a debate from the focus of public policy was not really done with any strength. And moreover, the little that was seen on the topics of skin-color was very much linked to things that happened outside Cuba—the racialization of the pandemic in the United States, the high morbidity of Latinos and African-Americans—and the regional inequalities were not broached as much as the age-related topics either.

This means that discussions on vulnerability will have to be undertaken again, in all its dimensions and connections, in order to influence the reconfiguration of a public, media and political agenda.

There is an economic productivity bias which even before the health crisis had not been possible to erase in many projects, programs and agents related to the approval and momentum of local development processes. The projects termed economically productive were still being prioritized as to resources awarded, and definitely the projects termed sociocultural were being avoided. This somewhat biased methodological vision persisted, and the types of social intervention were being hierarchized.

I do fear that with the scarcity of resources and the persistence of this perspective, these so-called economically productive projects will be the ones to be approved when the time comes, and the topics of equity—often approached from the sociocultural perspective—will be addressed less. It can also happen that the topics will only be considered in a few projects, whose administrators have sufficient sensitivity and training to mainstream the perspective of social equity in any type of action, especially if it deals with the question of the distribution of the means of production, of work, and the results of that work.

HJ: During the period from 2016 to 2019, Cuba showed an average annual economic increase of 1.4%, which was 1.3% below that shown from 2010 to 2015, when it was 2.7%. The current pandemic situation will generate significant impacts, since ours is an open economy, under-developed, with a high dependency on imports, a drastic reduction in its sources of income, subjected to strong sanctions, and with zero access to any mechanism of external compensation in the form of contingency loans from international financial entities.

In the middle of confronting the crisis, the leadership of the country called for a group of contingency measures to encourage the municipal self-sufficiency program, and to guarantee the different local production systems. Material and financial resources are being dedicated with priority to the production of rice, banana, beans, corn, eggs and pork. The solutions to these problems should also take into consideration the improvement of the supply, distribution and product commercialization systems.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security has implemented measures for dealing with labor and salary protection in the midst of COVID-19. Working remotely, which linked 627,855 people, also gained strength, especially in the provinces of Pinar del Río, Sancti Spíritus, Las Tunas, Granma and Guantánamo. In the non-state sector, in which 623,557 Cubans work, some 243,203 people lost their licenses—principally those related to transport, home rentals, and those linked to gastronomy—with the corresponding effect on personal and family resources.

The country boasts a series of strengths to confront the post-COVID-19 recovery period, among them: a centrally planned economy, sovereignty in the management of budgetary resources, an inclusive social policy, a policy that says no one will be left out, and experience in adjustment measures.

As part of the implementation of the modifications in the Governmental Structure and System, the disappearance of the Provincial Assemblies of Popular Power [Asambleas Provinciales del Poder Popular] and the appearance of the term Mayor [Intendente], is a step towards better management opportunities originating from the municipalities.

However, in a post-pandemic scenario, Cuba will feel more strongly the need to diversify the sources of financing for local development, as well as increasing the non-state management forms in the productive sectors. One of the priorities for the implementation of these measures are the local development projects, because they also constitute one of the priorities for the implementation of the National Development Plan 2030 [Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2030].

ME: With respect to the possible consequences, I would like to refer to three items. First, the topic of the restriction of resources. The municipal budgets are funded mainly by the 1% regional contribution, by the taxes imposed on independent workers and by other local economic entities. These are budgetary sources that will tend to decrease because they will be affected by the health emergency.

In the non-state sector, many businesses have closed and became exempt from taxes—as is logical, and the result of a proper political measure—because of which the contributions to the municipalities will be lower. Similarly, activity by the state in very diverse sectors has declined. Those who understand the topics of local development have always made it clear that the availability of financing and inputs is essential.

At this time, obviously, the whole world and the country are affected by these resource restrictions, so that the municipal scenario—in the case of Cuba, managing their own budgets is a relatively new experience—will be affected in terms of the finances to which it has access, and therefore their plans and development strategies will encounter difficulties in completing their objectives. That will not mean that it will be an invincible obstacle; much will depend on innovation, on the capacity to encourage local productive networks which have authority at this level—but it is a big challenge.

In the second place, I see some danger in a return to centralization. The handling of COVID-19 needs a very strong crisis management in which, as I see it, many of the successes that Cuba has achieved are related to a combination and a positive articulation between different levels. But these complicated situations often favor centralized decision-making and a single authority. As I said before, municipalization is still a young experience, in which many elements necessary to its consolidation are still missing, and so centralization is a danger that can always creep up.

We should not forget that decentralization, municipalization and local development mean a redistribution of power, mean that some players will have to compromise on their capacity and real power to make decisions and on the resources available for them, relinquish them, and engage in a redistribution of this power. All that, consciously or unconsciously, is not always a process that takes place without tensions.

Therefore, if there is one lesson to be learned from this health emergency is the fact that the local scene is noble and has great potential for handling vulnerabilities, risks, for conciliatory decisions with the people, for encouraging behaviors, solidarities and actions; it is also possible to consider a decision regarding the necessity of the central powers to guide the processes. I hope that the decision that will cross our future paths will be the need to distinctly combine national, centralized policies with a high component of locally informed and participatory decisions.

A third element I see is a limited view of the vulnerabilities, the inequalities and the social disadvantages. The pandemic opened our eyes to the importance to first look after those who run the greatest risks because of some personal, social or family characteristic. In this case, the age-related traits and that of comorbidity stand at the top of the list; this has been well described, and policies, services and actions have been put into place to protect seniors and those who have illnesses that makes them vulnerable.

That is good, but my impression is that it could lead to actions that are somewhat biased towards true protection, and towards policies that are specific to these kind of groups. I agree with these specific actions, but at least from what we have seen in the media and in the debates, I feel that the topics of socioeconomic inequalities and the vulnerabilities these create have remained in second place.

A person who has an ailment that will put him at risk, and who has a good income, lives in a good home and in a hygienic environment is not the same as those who live from day to day, who don’t have savings to face this situation, who don’t have any other protection, and so, irrespective of their age, they have to put themselves at risk. In my opinion, that is a danger, a kind of step backwards in the understanding of socioeconomic inequalities and their links with other inequalities.

AG: The essential effect, from our point of view, would be the possible failure to fulfill the actions and policies planned for 2020, or the modification of their scope. In our case, as we propose culture as the activity to encourage local development with equity of a specific community, it has been very difficult to comply with the schedule of activities.

MG: The effects generated by COVID-19 in the Holguín area center on the deterioration of personal consumption and the equality of the access to basic services. On the one hand this is related to the difficult economic situation that the country is going through, sharpened by the economic restrictions imposed by the government of the United States. On the other hand there is the lack of motivation, interest, responsibility, creativity and dedication to produce goods, supplies, products and services by some of the sectors of the population.

In the regional context of Holguín, efforts were combined to protect a group of people with reduced capacity to confront and resist the effects of the danger caused by COVID-19. In this struggle it became clear that the inequalities and the vulnerabilities are not only linked to people or groups with low economic income, disabilities, children or seniors without family support.

On the contrary, the problem of the vulnerable groups became greater for all those over 60 years of age irrespective of economic income, skin color, condition of health or if they are working actively. It also incorporated a wide sector of the population of age 40 and over, most of them actively working, who suffered from chronic or degenerative illnesses, people with whom we live every day, without giving them the necessary services.

MP: The presence of COVID-19 brought changes in the progress that was being made in local equitable development in Cuba. These are fundamentally seen in the economic sphere, as not all people have access to certain products and services, which impacts directly on all spheres of social life. In spite of that, the Cuban State has not lost its focus related to this topic; on the contrary, it strengthens even more the need to encourage citizen participation in the construction of a more equitable and just society.

WP: What changes to the structures of inequality and vulnerability that were being studied have the Cuban regional environments suffered in the times of COVID-19?

GF: Our diagnostics on vulnerabilities, although they have a certain validity, produce some results that are blurred. We have to get back to them, update them, reformulate them, so as to be able to grasp other tendencies, like the worsening of situations of poverty and vulnerability through the adjustments in well-being, which was already taking shape, and which now again transferred numerous expenses related to the reproduction of life—like food supplies, basic services, cultural consumption, education, etc.—on to the finances of the family.

We also have to look again at those worsening situations—given the quantity of the men and women workers in the public sector who were let go, who, although they were assured of their right to 60% of their salaries, had to face a budgetary structure of higher family expenses with fewer resources, simply because they were living together in the same house. Other situations are also happening with workers who lost their jobs in the private sector, both formal and informal autonomous workers.

We would also have to look at those families whose economic strategies were based on the commercial retail circuits between Havana and other provinces like Mayabeque or Artemisa, the commercial retail circuits between Cuba and other Caribbean, Latin American or European countries. All these families depended on the transportation opportunities that were suspended.

Another topic that could be distinctive are the people, often representatives of the traditional vulnerable groups that found confinement a perfect location to develop speculative strategies, profiting from scarce food and hygienic products. This sector, although it is one that because of its cultural capital and its idiosyncrasies does not lean towards accumulation for future investments strategies, could well have come out of this period with a different bottom line in their personal economy. An investigation of this topic—and I don’t have any data on it, I’m just noting it as a topic for study—could throw light on a very moderately rising mobility in economic terms, and obviously at the cost of health; in addition to other groups whose strategies collapsed because of institutional measures of confrontation.

ME: I think this is going to be a topic for immediate study, and I still don’t know of any systematization on how these inequality structures are going to be reconfigured. In any case, my impression is that it is not going to change much in the regional inequality maps generated by the Index of Regional Human Development [Indice de Desarrollo Humano Territorial] that is in the process of being created right now. This report will help to distinguish differences at the municipal level, and even before this, research has been done that has mapped the different municipal situations, beyond this governmental level.

In any case I believe that it is very possible that there will be a drop in the economic condition of those municipalities and regions in general that are closely linked to tourism and other activities that have been shown to be very affected by the pandemic. I think that it is also going to depend on the moment at which there may be an opportunity and the capacity to recover that the regions may have. This is going to happen in the whole country and will be more acute in regions with a less solid productive base, so the socioeconomic inequality will be more severe there. In this context, specific groups that are more affected than others will be evident.

The topic of access to appropriate housing and to hygienic, healthy community and family environments will also come up, because it is something that has not been dealt with in our society. The possibility of cleanliness in public spaces, in social institutions, hygiene, the possibility of a home with a minimum of comfort, which could be a protective space. I understand that here we have a subject that is pending, that right now is showing the weight of the inequalities, and in which the authorities should have greater responsibilities.

MP: This situation has generated changes. Some negative, like the limited access to resources, because not all of the population has sufficient means or income to shop in bulk or on-line, and so the lack of social control, and hoarding, gets worse. From my perspective, other changes have been positive, as reflected in a greater recognition of and attention to vulnerable groups in the communities by means of better community diagnostics, and thus its importance as a valuable instrument for the detection of problems and potentials. A positive environment of social cooperation and commitment among the people has been generated, as reflected by popular participation, recognizing regional identity as an essential element that boosts local development.

VP: At the local level, what policies will be necessary to guarantee equity in a post-COVID-19 context?

GF: I think that the focus on equity should be a fundamental tool to mainstream the design, the implementation and the assessment in any policy—whether local or national. This is more necessary in this period when a bundle of vulnerabilities have come to the surface. For example, I think that at the level of scientific and IT policies, the updating of data by all people involved is required in order to analyze the situation in which people and families find themselves after the current situation, and face the upcoming challenges.

I think that the Strategies for Municipal Development [Estrategias de Desarrollo Municipal] should be reviewed in a participatory manner in order to incorporate the equity focus more explicitly in its strategic areas and in the programs and projects derived from it. At the level of labor policies, there have been proposals for a while for working places to be real spaces of employee management, from a perspective that goes beyond gender inequalities, etc. I think that now is the time to promote a popular and solidarity focus, linked to the production of food but also to the care-giving services and other groups of initiatives.

It is important to think of real strategies to offer to the younger generations who may find themselves unemployed in strategic regions of the country. We also have to think of the insertion of vulnerable groups into the development processes, in regions that are not that dependent on international markets—self-employment, cooperatives. I also think that the international relations offices and those who work with projects should think of how to obtain funds for initiatives that prioritize women as heads of family, vulnerable families, and young people.

It is an opportune moment to organize participatory processes of policy making in which a fresh look is given to the community’s own resources. And also to encourage creative initiatives that prioritize meeting places, dialogues, regional panels, and workshops, where the creativity of women, young people and poor families is encouraged, so that solutions can be found.

The policy relating to credit goes beyond the local sphere, but we could think of how to decentralize these types of policies in order to support initiatives that are emerging, and support counseling and experiences like incubators, etc. And there are also other challenges, like dealing with the stratification by class of the farmers, which has been forecast by a group of studies and which has probably become worse in the time of the pandemic.

Now that new forms of agricultural production are being encouraged and the forms of commercialization are being updated, now is the right time to look at the situations of protection for migrant men and women workers coming from the eastern region and who are being hired formally and informally on private farms. This type of socio-classist arrangement, which has existed for some time, can worsen, and the local region is the perfect environment in which to dismantle these dynamics, and see that the people who are actually working the land receive better outcomes and different levels of encouragement.

In the area of health, the different effects that the pandemic has had can be rethought with respect to gender, skin color, age, geographic area; rethink those indicators by which community health is being monitored; preventive strategies, topics that relate to mental health, and symptoms of those who are care-givers. At the educational level, we have to think that when classes were virtual, boys, girls and adolescents may have lived in a different way, with the company of their families. This can generate inequalities that can pass into the educational environment and can have an impact in the future insertion of these young people into the labor market, and influence the development of that region.

HJ: At the social level, in parts of the population, behaviors are manifesting themselves that reflect social disorder, a lack of harmony in the relations between people, a culture that is not up to protecting the environment, a lack of capacity to understand the threats of climate change and the need to conserve our joint patrimony and culture, which is being reflected in the lack of sensitivity towards identity.

It is becoming necessary to form a responsible citizenry, with a coherent cultural and educative practice that resolves the contradictions, and balances individual actions with the collective needs of social transformation. Hence the fact that the actions being proposed must contribute to citizen training of young people, adults, and seniors according to a social, economic and environmental culture towards sustainable development, in its links with the family, the community and the social and political organizations.

Among the developmental priorities at the local level, we can envisage the implementation of food production strategies that make the most of the local resources and potentials, and recover the productive practices and traditions of the regions.

Opportunities are being presented to welcome local initiatives that encourage the planning of micro, medium and small businesses that bring both state and non-state sectors together, and that direct their efforts to the local demands and needs. It would be interesting if these initiatives were not exclusive to the productive sector, and could also consider the cultural, creativity, innovation sectors, as well as some services.

ME: I think it is essential to complete and anchor the decentralization process. There is still no Law for municipalities, no clarification of the responsibilities and completion of the sources of financing of the regions; as well as a fund we could call “compensation” to mitigate the inter-regional differences.

I think we have to move in that direction so that the authorities and the municipal civil societies can have a more motivational, proactive and innovative role in one of the central areas to overcome the socio-economic effects of COVID-19. These topics are employment, income, care-giving systems, diversification of the subjects and agents at the economic level—businesses and state services as well as enterprises and cooperatives.

Of special importance is the establishment of the possibilities of employment and income policies at the municipal level—and I insist: this does not mean taking them out of the national policies: it means articulating them at these levels. I consider that the leadership and prominence of the municipal governments and its citizens in generating productive networks and economically sustainable networks of local services is basic, but for this, municipalities will have to have the competence to do so, the support in training, in coaching, and have sources of financing to mobilize and increase in order to carry out these plans.

AG: It will be necessary for the governmental administrations, articulated with the groups that were created to evaluate the development of every region, to assess and analyze the priorities of the proposed programs for equitable local development, and for them to establish an order of priority. A new design will have to be prepared to accelerate their fulfillment, taking into account the concrete problems that may be solvable, and work to entirely resolve the subjectivism that exists in every locality.

MG: It is necessary to strengthen the competencies at the local level, in order to reduce the effects of any type of danger, the inclusive perspective of the local governments and the political participation of the people in decision-making. I can add that in the project that I coordinate in Holguín, we have facilitated workshops and meetings with a multi-sectorial working group, with the objective of establishing the local development strategy of the municipality so that its composition will be the result of the contributions of representatives of mass organizations, of political organizations, of the business and the institutional sectors of the region.

MP: In order to guarantee equity in the post-pandemic context, local policies relating to the distribution of and access to vital resources will have to be rethought, taking into account the characteristics of each region, and, within each region its diversity, irrespective of the self-management that is being done. In addition, the policies relating to the coordination and articulation of agents, as well as the local planning will have to be rethought. And a final element, equally important, is the training of our principal leaders as related to local development.


Translation: Catharina Vallejo

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