Governance in Cuba and the new president (I)

Next April 19, if what was announced by President Raúl Castro is confirmed – to not continue holding the topmost post on the island -, Cuba will have a new head of State. This will give rise to several analyses and a certain international attention about the “transfer.” However, the event in itself doesn’t have to cause great changes in the nation, if it is taken into account that the power structures and cultures are related, but are not reduced, to its institutional composition.

Even so, it will be a singular experience. Since 1959 until today – almost 60 years -, Cuban institutional history has officially known only four presidents: Manuel Urrutia Lleó (1959), Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado (1959-1976), Fidel Castro Ruz (1976-2006) and Raúl Castro Ruz (2008-to date).

Two data are relevant in the upcoming process: the new president will have a different surname, and his/her functions will be defined by the Constitution in force, in the face that the 2011 official promise of drawing up a new magna carta might seem abandoned, for the time being.

In this article I am not interested in the futurology of who will be the new president – it is probable that the news, as is traditional, does afford great surprises – but rather in the framework in which the next Cuban head of state must carry out his/her functions, the sources of his/her legitimacy and some of the institutional problems it would be prudent to approach. Before considering such issues, I will make a review of the governances that really existed in the Cuban history of the 20th century.

Governance in 1901

In the 20th century Cuba had three constitutions, several constitutional laws and many constitutional reforms. The governance given to the country by those constitutions was different in all of them, and they were always rather singular.

The 1901 Constitution, inspired on the U.S. tradition, comprised a strong presidential government. The executive power was exercised by the President of the Republic, eligible by second degree vote, with a four-year term in office. For the exercise of his functions the president had six office secretaries.

A commentator, José Clemente Vivanco, noted in 1902 that such a system “is not presidential because this regime requires that the executive power solely resides on the president, making himself, for the only reason, the sole responsible official, with the ministers or office secretaries just being mere messengers and assistants…and neither is it parliamentary because the legislative does not intervene in the administration, or the executive, through his ministers, has a seat in the Houses to explain his actions and defend all the bills he wished to present.”

At the time, diverse positions were critical of the presidential design of the concentration of power.

Salvador Cisneros Betancourt had written a draft Constitution (1900) that proposed the direct election of the president and prohibited any individual who had belonged to the Liberation Army with the rank of Brigadier, or higher, from opting for the highest post, so that “a military government can never be constituted in Cuba.”

Cuba in the 1030s. Photo: Walker Evans.
Cuba in the 1030s. Photo: Walker Evans.

Three decades later, other Cubans continued proposing similar contents. According to Luis Hechavarría y Limonta (1937), the president had to be elected by direct universal suffrage, and his functions had to be “perfectly determined in the Constitution, avoiding that due to an excess of powers all those that by that same Constitution correspond to other State powers are absorbed by and added to him, with the democratic Republic that incarnates the ideas and aspirations of the Cuban people losing its political complexion and disappearing.”

The political practice generated by the presidential design of 1901 was contrary to those proposals: it was the legal channel of the political leadership and of the concentration of power. It functioned within a regulatory framework that did not intervene in the causes that were sustained by the local political bosses, like oligarchic land ownership and the lack of social rights and public provisions on social resources.

The 1940 Constitution

Meanwhile, the 1940 Constitution modeled, for the first and only time in Cuba’s institutional history, a semi-parliamentary regime. The president of the Republic was the head of State and represented the Nation. He had to act “as direct moderator and national solidarity.” He was also elected by direct and secret universal suffrage for a period of four years.

The system prohibited the consecutive reelection, established a waiting period of eight years for the re-nomination, created the figure of a prime minister (he would be one of the ministers, with or without portfolio, designated by the president) and established mechanisms of coordination between all the public powers that sought to moderate the executive’s weight.

Contemporary Cuban constitutionalists have debated the nature of that institutional system. Carlos Manuel Villabella considers said regime an “attenuated presidency,” and describes it as “improper” to call it semi-parliamentary. However, the very creators of the system had another opinion.

José Manuel Cortina, when explaining that design in the Constituent Convention of 1939-40, attacked the presidential system head-on: “in all the American Continent we are the country where there is the strictest and most absolute presidential regime.” In the opinion of its formulators, the proposal of the Constitution (1940) accepted the parliamentary system, and was “doubly advantageous, [the president] conserves his authority, presides over the Council of Ministers and can, however, divide responsibility between the Government Council and the Prime Minister.” Thus, according to that opinion, it had “all the advantages of the parliamentary regime, with none of its inconveniences.”

Barely created, the real efficiency of that regime was strongly challenged. That is also why the history of the parliamentary system is today not very well-known among Cubans. Nevertheless, there is more than one aspect in it that can be rescued.

Presidential vs parliamentary system

As Antoni Doménech as documented, “the constitutionalization of democracy, simply understood as regime with universal suffrage and parliamentary control of the government, was always introduced [in Europe] and wherever by workers’ governments after the collapse of the merely constitutional continental monarchies (with no parliamentary control).”

What is known as “postwar democratic consensus” – in whose drawing up the great anti-fascist resistance and great variety of socialist movements played a not always recognized central role – was very critical of the canon of liberal democracy. In it, it sought to expand democracy with a sliding toward the parliamentary, social justice and economic participation. As part of these currents, the – failed- effort to parliamentize Cuban governance in 1940 should be included.

The discussion also continues today in the form of criticism of the model of Latin American presidential systems. In Cuba, that regional debate has been summed up this way by the already mentioned Villabella: “some defend the need for the metamorphosis of the presidential system toward a less personal system, while others uphold the need for more presidential systems to give a boost to the transformations, based in the hegemony of power.”

The first option, like all the alternatives, has problems, but since it is a field being experimented with it could bring desirable innovations. The second has a documented history of major inconveniences.

Roberto Gargarella has written at length about this: Latin American reformist constitutionalism devoted itself to expanding existing rights, but without incorporating the matching and necessary modifications in the other fundamental area of the Constitution, the area of the organization of power. The thesis refers to the hyper presidential system, which prevents the expansion of rights to self-attribute them based on social actors as well as to defend them based on public instruments.

It is important to know that history, and this current debate, because it says something important for today: the objective of achieving more political equality, more redistribution of power, also passes through the dispute of an institutional system consistent with that goal. The failures of an institutional system – one of them is to delegate the concentration of power – has direct consequences: disempowerment of the citizens and the capture of the State by the elites.

Revolution: a new institutional design

After the Revolution, the institutional system created by the 1976 Constitution reacted against the presidential system as well as against the parliamentary one.

The Constitution – enacted in 1976, reformed in 1978, 1992 and 2002 and which today is in force – considers the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP) as the “supreme organ of State power,” which “represents and expresses the sovereign will of the entire people.”

The text established a unicameral design, not presidential or parliamentary. Julio Fernández Bulté described it as “a place for assembly,” while Villabella describes it as “conventional” (referring to the Convention established by the 1792 French Constitution).

The system is not original (it has selectively crossed antecedents of the Cuban constitutional history and the tradition of “real socialism”), but it is singular in the current world.

No matter how much the foreign press and more recently the Cuban one has chosen to speak of “president” when referring to Raúl Castro, a president does not exist in Cuba in the way this figure predominates in other institutional designs.

The question of who, how and from what institutional framework the head of State gives orders is one of those in which everyone believes they know the answer. But if we speak of research, it doesn’t seem a favorite subject of Cuban social sciences, and frequently the public information given about the subject is limited to transcribing, in the purest school style, the respective articles of the Constitution.

(To be continued)

*The author is a Cuban professor, historian and jurist.

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