original title: In Cuba, democracy a block at a time
By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer
This is democracy, Cuban style: salsa music and a show of hands on a street corner in Old Havana.
The beat pours from curbside speakers, signaling to about 150 neighbors to gather and choose candidates for the capital’s municipal assembly.
“Just observe u2;014 it’s democracy,” says Mario Hernandez, a leader of his block’s Revolutionary Defense Committee, jabbing a meaty finger into a reporter’s chest at the corner of Villegas and O’Reilly Streets.
“Here there are no rifles, no repression,” adds the 71-year-old, a fat stogie clenched between his teeth. “You’ll see.”
Cuba’s communist system rests in part on these block-by-block gatherings, convened every 2 1/2 years, where anyone 16 and over can nominate and elect neighbors to local government posts.
These “nomination assemblies” are organized by election officials and the Revolutionary Defense Committees, which keep tabs on residents and are located on nearly every block across the nation of 11.2 million. Nominated candidates vie for seats on municipal assemblies, which help choose candidates for Cuba’s National Assembly. That national legislature in turn approves appointments to the island’s supreme governing body, the Council of State.
Real power has always rested with President Fidel Castro, who has never had to put his job to a free vote. The 81-year-old hasn’t been seen in public since emergency intestinal surgery forced him to cede power to younger brother Raul in July 2006. He officially still heads the Council of State, but unless his health improves, council members could replace him with Raul next spring.
The United States says Cuba’s system is antidemocratic because it doesn’t allow direct multiparty elections for president. Cuba retorts that in America, the candidates who raise the most money usually win. It also maintains that the U.S. doesn’t have direct presidential elections either, pointing to the electoral college that gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush, even though Al Gore got more votes.
And while the Communist Party runs the government, a third of the 37,328 candidates chosen at nominating assemblies to run for municipal posts won’t be party members, but men and women chosen because their neighbors like them.
Critics note, however, that when municipal assembly seats are determined in a secret ballot election on Oct. 28, the only winners of the more than 15,000 posts will be Communist Party members.
Moreover, the initial nominating that ran until Sept. 26 was by a show of hands, not a secret ballot, which effectively bars dissidents from running, say critics such as Alejandro Tru, of the tiny, opposition Liberal Party of Cuba.
Residents of the Nuevo Vedado neighboorhood attend a meeting during municipal elections in Havana, Sept. 11, 2007. Cuba’s communist system is built in part on these block-by-block gatherings, where anyone 16 and over can nominate neighbors and vote on candidates for local government. (AP Photo/Prensa Latina)
If anyone raised a hand for a dissident candidate, “there are 1,000 subtle and not subtle ways” to intimidate them into withdrawing their nomination, he said.
Since Cuban elected bodies exist mainly to rubber-stamp government policy, membership doesn’t offer much of a legislative challenge. Nor does it pay much. But it carries a prestige that attracts top artists, singers and authors to vie for seats.
Voting isn’t mandatory, and younger Cubans aren’t much in evidence at the nominating assemblies, even though participation is strongly encouraged and organizers even take attendance slips.
On O’Reilly Street, families spill out of crowded apartments for the vote. Struggling to be heard over the music, a veteran organizer shouts to the crowd that the assembly will soon begin.
“Raise your hand to vote, but do not raise your hand more than once,” she warns. Soon a microphone is produced, the music silenced and four candidates nominated.
“We all know him as a good neighbor who completes his work,” one woman says in support of the first nominee, party member Buenaventura Fernandez.
“We could leave behind the ‘machismo’ that we’ve always had and nominate a ‘companera,’” a man implores, praising the lone female nominee.
But the final vote isn’t close. Fernandez’s name is called first. Without a word, 63 hands go up. The other three get just 39 votes between them.
Everyone applauds. “Viva Fidel! Viva Raul!” they cry, before drifting home. The whole process has taken 27 minutes.
Fernandez is middle-aged and a first-time nominee, but “he was already known by people,” says Jorge Guerrero, a 59-year-old port mechanic and voter, explaining the landslide victory.
Asked if he hopes one day to vote like this for Cuba’s president, Rene Grana, a 77-year-old retiree, replies that Fernandez could win an assembly seat and work his way up from there.
“Maybe we just elected the president of the republic,” he says.