A frame grab from Cuba’s state television shows Cuba’s acting President Raul Castro casting his vote at a polling station in Havana October 21, 2007.
by Isabel Sanchez | AFP
Cubans voted Sunday in the first round of balloting that ultimately could indicate whether Fidel Castro will formally remain communist Cuba’s leader, or perhaps opt for a permanent power handover.
Some 38,000 voting precincts opened at 1100 GMT and closed at 2200 GMT, with more than 8.3 million Cubans over the age of 16 eligible to vote for some 15,000 council seats in the Americas’ only one-party communist state.
The election process is to culminate by early 2008 with a new national assembly and selection of 31 members of Cuba’s Council of State. The council has been led by Fidel Castro since the 1960s.
But Castro, 81, continues to be sidelined from power since he underwent gastrointestinal surgery in July 2006.
Raul Castro, 76, is serving as interim president of Cuba, while his elder brother recovers, and still formally leads the Council of State.
The elections are expected to clarify eventually whether the status quo of the interim government led by Raul Castro will be left in place permanently, or if Fidel formally will stay at the council’s helm, leading this island of slightly more than 11 million people.
Although last year Cuban officials insisted that Fidel would return to work as prior to his illness, they long since have stopped making such predictions.
Local television reported that the ailing leader cast his ballot at midday at the secret location where he is recovering.
Castro reportedly cast his ballot in presence of an electoral official, but out of the view of television cameras—the latest non-appearance by the ailing leader, who formerly was almost daily in the public eye.
Many Cubans expect that Fidel Castro will be sidelined definitively, while continuing to write his editorials, and that Raul Castro eventually will wade into some cautious economic reforms.
While initial fears that the Cuban government would collapse in Fidel’s absence have subsided, the government headed by Raul Castro faces a plethora of problems from rock-bottom salaries to crippling shortages in the transportation and housing sectors and an ever-rising cost of living.
On the eve of balloting Saturday, Castro hailed the country’s electoral process as superior to that of its northern neighbor the United States, which also is in the throes of a protracted election campaign.
“Our elections are the antithesis of those held in United States ... There, first you have to be very rich, or have an enormous amount of money behind you,” said Castro in an editorial in the official daily Granma.
In the United States “to be elected president, you need hundreds of millions (of dollars), which come straight out of the coffers of the big monopolies.
“A candidate can win who actually got a minority of the popular vote,” Castro marveled, in a jab at US President George W. Bush who, thanks to the unusual US electoral college system, won the presidency in 2000 even though Al Gore won the popular vote.
“There is fraud, trickery, ethnic discrimination and even violence,” Castro said of the US electoral system, in his latest missive in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper.
Although Cuba considers its elections democratic, the United States and many western nations see the Cuban electoral process as bereft of real choice.
Balloting in Cuba is taking place as Bush prepared to unveil “new initiatives” next week to help Cubans push for democracy, according to a White House announcement on Friday.
In response, Fidel Castro issued a statement read out on television as voting began Sunday criticizing Bush for refusing to lift decades-old US sanctions on Cuba, which he called “genocidal.”
“Bush is obsessed with Cuba,” said Fidel Castro, adding that Cuban “sovereignty is non-negotiable.”