Cuban dissident Julio Aleaga was granted one minute to tell his neighborhood council why he wanted to be a candidate in the elections Sunday, the first of several votes leading up to the expected reelection of Raúl Castro around February.
Another candidate, Lt. Col. Juan Carlos Zayas of the Interior Ministry, did not show up for the Sept. 23 gathering, Aleaga said. But Zayas won the nomination with 40 out of the 60 votes. The votes against Zayas were not even counted.
Havana portrays the electoral system as a grass-roots democracy, although there’s only one legal party, the Communist Party, no campaigning is allowed, no dissident has ever been accepted as a candidate and no national lawmaker has ever cast a no vote.
But Cubans say there’s far more interest in the U.S. presidential election Nov. 6 than on the predictable vote Sunday, and that the turnout at the neighborhood council that selected the first round of candidates averaged one-third of the eligible participants.
“I don’t see the most minimal interest in the election here because people know that’s not going to change anything,” said Mario Felix Lleonart, a protestant pastor in the central province of Santa Clara who regularly criticizes the government.
Highlighting the depth of the disaffection, a group of “democratic socialists” who back the government on many issues has even urged voters to draw a “D” on their ballots, to demand direct votes for president and acceptance of international human rights pacts.
Those elected to municipal councils have little power to change anything, declared one of the group’s leading members, Pedro Campos, a well-known Communist Party member, historian and former diplomat.
More than 90 percent of the island’s 8 million voters are expected to choose Sunday from the 30,000 candidates for the 168 municipal councils. Some of the winners will be selected to run later for provincial legislatures and still later for the National Assembly of People’s Power, most likely in a final round of balloting in February.
The Assembly then selects the Councils of State and Ministers, the standing bodies of the legislature, and their president, the country’s highest office. Castro was elected to those posts in 2008 and is widely expected to be chosen for a second five-year term.
Castro proposed during a Communist Party gathering in 2011 that all top offices be limited to two five-year terms, but it is not totally clear whether his 2008 term would count, or even whether the proposal was put into effect.
“Cubans are not expecting any surprises,” wrote the British Broadcasting Corp.’s man in Havana, Fernando Ravsberg. “They are convinced that Raúl Castro will be reelected and that nearly all of the (deputies) will be militants in the Cuban Communist Party.”
Official candidates usually win more than 90 percent of the vote. But analysts have noticed a rising number of blank or null ballots in recent elections, and dissidents have reported some small incidents surrounding preparations for the balloting Sunday.
Lleonart said his name mysteriously disappeared from the voter rolls, and that members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, historically repressed in Cuba, have told him that all members have agreed to cast blank ballots.
In the central province of Sancti Spíritus, residents of the village of El Caney were reported to have refused to nominate any candidates to protest the government’s failure to fix a road all but destroyed by recent rains.
Police attended another neighborhood council in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba to intimidate those who wanted to nominate independent journalist Walter Clavel Torres, said Jose Daniel Ferrer, a leading dissident in the province.
Aleaga said his request to become a candidate was met with shouts of “illiterate” from neighborhood hardliners but then sparked a short debate with “moderate communists” who argued that everyone had a right to be heard.
One of the most interesting candidacies is that of Sirley Ávila León, 53, who currently represents the Limones farming area on the Majibacoa municipal council in Las Tunas province. She was elected in 2005 and describes herself as a “revolutionary.”
But Avila sparked a hubbub when she gave a recent telephone interview to Radio/TV Marti, the Miami-based U.S. government broadcaster, complaining about the lack of government services in her district.
Supportive neighbors, nevertheless, endorsed her as a candidate for re-election on Sunday, she told El Nuevo Herald, and on Friday she confirmed that she remained a candidate, despite a rumor that she had been disqualified.
The only change, noted with a laugh, was that about 25 of her neighbors had disappeared from the voter rolls at her usual voting center, and apparently were transferred to a different district.
“My friends keep telling me that the authorities are afraid of me,” she said. “But I will continue working for Limones no matter what ... It’s not easy, but it can be done.”