Cuba allows non-Communist candidates, but few people expect any change

December 21, 1992|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

HAVANA -- Cuba, one of the world's last bastions of socialism, yesterday took what its leaders hailed as "a magnificent journey of democracy" and held municipal elections that included candidates not chosen by the Communist Party.

But since all the nominating groups are recognized as supporters of the Communist Party and about 80 percent of the 28,000 candidates are party members, foreign diplomats and Cuban voters had no hope for any significant change in the nation's one-party political system.

"The elections are democratic because we can vote for a candidate without problem, but both candidates are the same," said one voter, an electronics technician in the capital's historic center, Old Havana. "You can vote any way you want, and Fidel will still have power."

Only the Communist Party has been allowed to operate in Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power more than 30 years ago. Under the former electoral laws, candidates for all political offices were nominated by the party.

The new system, adopted in July by the National Assembly, allowed neighborhood groups from 169 communities to nominate candidates to represent their communities as municipal delegates. Cuban officials boast that the candidates range from student leaders to housewives to scholars and laborers, proving that theirs is the most democratic political system in the world.

Diplomats see it as one of several steps Mr. Castro has taken to appease foreign governments in hopes that they might make more efforts to lift Cuba out of its deep economic crisis.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, formerly Cuba's lifeline, the country has suffered severe shortages of food, gasoline and medical supplies.

Television commercials appealed to Cubans to show pride in their country by showing up at the polls. By 11 a.m., most of the 14 provinces had reported that 80 percent of the eligible voters -- close to 7.5 million people -- had cast ballots.

"These elections are expressions of the validity of the revolution and the trust of the people," said Mr. Castro as he voted yesterday in the center-city neighborhood of Plaza de la Revolucion. Other than the candidates, few Cubans interviewed shared this excitement. Although saucy Cuban music blared from radios at polls throughout Havana, the mood of the voters was flat.

"People know that they have to vote or the government will think they are not supporters," said Milagro Rodriguez Aleman. "But they are not excited."

A professor at the University of Havana, who like most people interviewed asked not to be identified for fear of retribution by the government, pointed out that the candidates are hardly representative of the Cuban population. While about 9 percent of the people are members of the Communist Party, 80 percent of the candidates are party members.

"These elections don't mean anything to us," said the professor, who lives in a professional neighborhood called Playa. Holding up the palm-sized biscuit that is the daily bread ration for each Cuban citizen, he added: "And they certainly don't make us feel that things are going to get any better soon."

A number of voters interviewed over the last few days said they intended to leave their ballots blank.

It is a common form of silent protest that has been practiced for years, voters said. But this year, for the first time, government officials have agreed to disclose the number of blank votes cast. Final results are expected to be announced this afternoon.

Raul Suarez, a Baptist minister, was one of the handful of religious candidates running for office in yesterday's elections. If elected, they will be the first declared church officials to hold office.

Mr. Suarez was a principal organizer in the recent shipment of medical and school supplies to Cuba from religious groups in the United States who oppose the U.S. embargo against the island nation. And while he says he has had a love-hate relationship with the government, he hopes to serve as the government's moral conscience.

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