Cubans hold municipal elections; belie criticism
By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press Writer
HAVANA -- Cuba held elections to fill municipal assemblies across the
island on Sunday in a vote the communist government says belies
criticism in Washington and Europe that Fidel Castro's half-century old
revolution is not democratic.
Almost all of Cuba's 8.4 million eligible voters were expected to turn
out for the vote - which will choose 15,000 people to fill seats in 169
Those elected won't be dealing with big geopolitical issues such as how
to thaw frozen relations with the United States, or what measures must
be taken to revitalize a near-dormant economy. Instead, they will be the
first point of contact most Cubans have with their government, the
person to see if electricity service is spotty or if the neighbors are
making too much noise.
The municipal assemblies also have some role in electing those who will
fill more important bodies including the regional assemblies and the
national parliament, which in turn decides who will serve on the Council
of State, Cuba's supreme governing body.
As president, Raul Castro is head of the Council of State. His brother
Fidel, who stepped down permanently in 2008 after an undisclosed
illness, remains leader of the Communist Party.
Lenia Rojas, a 44-year-old office worker who cast a ballot in the Havana
municipality of Playa, said she voted because she wanted a say in
picking the elected officials who will have the greatest immediate
effect on her life.
"These municipal delegates are close to the people. They are the ones
that we really have access to in order to resolve - or at least try to
resolve - some of our problems," she said.
Others were less enthusiastic.
"The truth is that I didn't mark my ballot for any of the candidates so
my vote is null. I don't believe in this. I don't think that they are
going to make anything better," said Orlando, a 53-year-old man leaving
a polling station in Havana. He refused to give his last name for fear
of reprisals, saying: "I only voted because I didn't want to give myself
Cuba's leaders have charged that the international news media ignore the
local voting as part of a global campaign to discredit the revolution.
They say their system is, in fact, the most democratic in the world
because it requires participation on a block-by-block level and is not
influenced by money.
Critics say the elections are window-dressing since all real power is
concentrated in the hands of the Castros and an aging cadre of
revolutionaries who have been with them since they overthrew dictator
Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Raul Castro cast his ballot in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. It was not
clear whether Fidel would also venture out to a polling station. In
2007, the last time elections were held, a ballot box was brought to the
ailing revolutionary so that he could vote.
Fidel, 83, has looked strong and alert in recent video released by the
government, but he has not been seen in public in nearly four years.
Candidates in Sunday's vote are nominated by a show of hands at
gatherings organized by the local government. Committees for the Defense
of the Revolution - or CDRs - neighborhood watch groups charged with
keeping close tabs on their areas and with reporting seditious activity,
help get people out to the gatherings.
While candidates do not need to be members of the Communist Party, the
vast majority are in good standing with local authorities. The
nomination process is done by a show of hands, but a committee must
approve each candidate in order for their names to get on the ballot.
Campaigning is outlawed in Cuba, so voters learn about the candidates
based either on word of mouth in the community or through a resume and
photograph pasted onto the walls of voting centers.
As in other countries, each voter places a check mark by the name of the
candidate they want, and the balloting is secret. While participation is
not mandatory, it is strongly encouraged. The government has stopped at
nothing in its get-out-the-vote drive, even enlisting hundreds of
carrier pigeons to take news of the vote to villages in mountainous
areas and other remote places, according to Cuba's official news agency,
Cubans 16 years of age or older can vote, and even younger
schoolchildren play a role. Each ballot box is "guarded" by two children
dressed in their school uniforms. In 2007, the last time municipal
elections were held, turnout topped 95 percent.
Results were expected Monday. A run-off to decide elections in which no
candidate received at least 50 percent of the vote will be held on May 2.