Cuba holds elections without Fidel Castro

The municipal voting is the first step of the process that could place Raul Castro as leader.

.HAVANA (AP) – 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 George

W. 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 16 years old or older can cast a ballot.

Organized campaigning is forbidden, but officials posted résumés 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 Malecón 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 fundraising.