Cubans hold municipal elections; belie criticism

HAVANA (AP) — Cubans voted for municipal assemblies across the island Sunday in a vote the communist government says belies criticism by 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 participate in balloting to choose 15,000 people to fill seats in 169 municipal assemblies.

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 May 2.

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 as president 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 away."

Cuba's leaders charged that international news media ignore the local voting as part of a global campaign to discredit the revolution. They say their system is 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 and Cuban television showed live images of a Vedado electoral official depositing a ballot allegedly filled out by Fidel Castro. "He has voted," the official said, to the applause of those present at the voting center.

It was not clear how Fidel voted. In 2007, the last time elections were held, a ballot box was taken to the ailing revolutionary so 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 were nominated by a show of hands at gatherings organized by the local government. Committees for the Defense of the Revolution — neighborhood watch groups responsible for 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, Prensa Latina.

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.