Hand-picked candidates stand in first Cuban poll

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The Independent Online
FOR the first time since Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, Cubans will go to the polls today to elect a new parliament and 14 provincial assemblies. While President Castro has described the elections as 'the purest in the world', their democratic credentials leave a little to be desired.

The Caribbean island's 7.5 million voters will approve or reject a list of candidates hand-picked by Mr Castro's Communist Party for both the 589-seat national assembly and the 14 provincial chambers. There is exactly one candidate for each seat and 80 per cent of them are Communist Party members. Since there are no legal opposition parties, there are no opposition candidates. As El Comandante himself put it during 'campaigning' last week, the vote will have 'all the virtues of democracy without all the vice and corruption'. For vice and corruption read choice of candidates. It may be one man, one vote, but it's one man, one vote, one candidate.

Still, most Cuba-watchers consider it a step in the right direction. Voters will mark their slips in private booths and at least have a chance to spoil their ballot if they wish to protest against the 66- year-old Mr Castro's regime. Underground dissidents have launched a campaign called 'The 'No' Chain', urging each Cuban not only to spoil his or her ballot but to encourage five friends to do the same.

Campaign propaganda, electoral promises and leaflets were banned. But Communist Party militants went from house to house over the past few weeks to explain how the ballot slip system worked. 'You can vote or not vote. That's your right,' one militant was heard to tell an elderly lady in Havana's Old Town last week. 'But it's simpler if you just put a cross here and vote for all of them (the 589 candidates).'

The size of the protest vote is about the only element of suspense in a poll likely to confirm most if not all of the 589 candidates for the next five years, as well as the more than 1,000 candidates for the provincial assemblies. A candidate who does not receive 50 per cent of the votes cast will be rejected and a new poll held later.

Such embarrassment is unlikely to befall Mr Castro himself, who is hoping to add a parliamentary seat, for a district in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, to his present title of President of the Council of State. That will, in turn, give him a chance to vote for himself when the parliament elects a new Council of State and President, expected to be one of its first tasks.

Among those running for parliament are well-disposed sportsmen and women, including the 1976 Montreal Olympics hero, Alberto Juantorena. Mr Castro has described voters as 'soldiers' and the election as 'the Battle of 24 February'. He has urged Cubans to 'stick it to the Yankees' by turning out to vote.

There is no sign, however, that today's elections will encourage the United States to end a three- decade trade embargo that has bitten particularly hard since the break-up of the Soviet Union, long Mr Castro's economic lifeline.