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Cubans vote without Castro in charge

Cubans vote without Castro in charge
Posted on Sun, Oct. 21, 2007
By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press Writer

HAVANA —
Cubans opened an election cycle Sunday that will lead to a decision next
year on whether ailing leader Fidel Castro will remain atop the
communist-run island's supreme governing body.

The nationwide municipal voting marked the start of a multitiered
process that culminates with parliamentary elections next spring.
Lawmakers could then decide to officially replace Castro, 81, with his
younger brother Raul as head of the 31-member Council of State.

The elder Castro has been the island's unchallenged leader since his
revolution toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. But he has not
been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgeries and
ceding power to a provisional government headed by his brother in July 2006.

Some 37,258 candidates were vying for 15,236 positions on municipal
assemblies nationwide and official media has said turnout of over 95
percent of the island's 8.3 million eligible voters is expected.

"If my commandant recovers his health, we will want him (as president)
forever. There's no one like him," said voter Gladys Veitia, tears
welling in her eyes.

Fidel Castro has looked lucid in recent state videos, but also frail and
in little condition to return to power. Cuban television reported he
cast his ballot around midday without leaving the undisclosed location
where he has been recovering for nearly 15 months.

In a statement read on official television during a subsequent national
newscast, Castro did not mention the elections, but referred to news
from Washington that, in coming days, President Bush planned to announce
initiatives aimed at fostering democratic transition in Cuba.

"Bush is obsessed with Cuba," Castro wrote, accusing the U.S.
administration of harboring terrorists, torturing terror suspects held
at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay and prolonging the 45-year-old
trade embargo against the island, which he called "your genocidal blockade."

The White House said Bush would announce "new initiatives" on Cuba at
the State Department on Wednesday. White House spokesman Tony Fratto
said last week that Bush would "emphasize the importance of democracy
for the Cuban people and the role the international community can play
in Cuba's transition."

The municipal elections are held every two and a half years. Voting is
not mandatory, though failing to cast a ballot can draw unwanted
attention in neighborhoods, where Revolutionary Defense Committees keep
tabs on residents. Anyone over 16 years old can cast a ballot.

Organized campaigning is forbidden, but officials posted resumes and
photographs of candidates which listed age, marital status, education
and experience. The Communist Party is the only one allowed by the
constitution, and while candidates do not have to be members, critics
claim they are the only ones who ever win.

Authorities will announce official results late Monday. Many races
feature three or more candidates, and run-off elections next week will
decide contests where no one receives a majority of votes.

Raul Castro voted at a polling place near Havana's sprawling Revolution
Plaza. He chatted with children in school uniforms and exchanged
pleasantries with a few military leaders who also voted.

Polling stations in Cuba are manned by children who salute voters as
they stuff completed ballots into boxes decorated in a variety of
colors. Signs, some hand-scrawled, were posted outside booths
proclaiming "Vote early," and "Choose the best and most capable."

Loitering near Havana's seaside Malecon late Saturday, two teens said
they would vote to avoid political repercussions, but that they didn't
support the elections.

"Nothing will change," said one, a college student who insisted on
anonymity.

Government critics and human rights groups – which are tolerated but
dismissed as mercenaries of U.S. authorities by Cuba's government –
boycotted the process.

Leading dissident Martha Beatriz Roque said elections are not secret
since all candidates nominated for municipal positions were chosen by a
show of hands at neighborhood gatherings – where no one dares nominate
opposition leaders.

"They are not democratic, so we can't call them 'elections,'" Roque, an
economist who was jailed for opposing the government but released for
medical reasons, said in a recent interview.

Cuba defends its system, saying it stresses service to one's neighbors
rather than excessive fund raising.

http://www.miamiherald.com/948/story/279378.html

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