UPDATE 1-Amid domestic change, Cubans march to the polls

Marc Frank
Reuters Middle East

* General election for national and provincial assemblies

* Candidate slates uncontested in Cuba; Castro brothers vote

(Updates with Fidel Castro votes)

HAVANA, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Cubans went to the polls on Sunday

to elect a Communist Party-selected slate of 612 deputies to the

National Assembly at a time of change in how they live and work,

but not in how they vote.

Veteran leader Fidel Castro, 86, made a rare appearance on

Sunday to cast his ballot. He voted from home in local elections

last year and in 2008 when the current assembly was elected,

according to the National Information Agency.

President Raul Castro and other leaders were shown on

state-run television casting their ballots and commenting on the

importance of the election as a show of support for reforms and

independence from the United States.

Raul Castro is decentralizing the state-dominated economy,

allowing more space for private initiative in agriculture and

retail services and has lifted many restrictions on personal

freedoms, such as travel and buying and selling homes and cars.

Castro, since taking over from older brother Fidel in 2008,

has also introduced term limits (two five-year stints) for top

government posts, but has drawn the line at legalizing other

political parties and contested elections.

"Renouncing the principle of a single party would be equal

to legalizing one or more imperialist parties," Castro said at a

Party conference last year.

He insisted critics, and even some friends, did not take

into account the "abnormal state of siege" the country is


"The one-party elections in Cuba, alongside steady but slow

progress on opening the economy, represent how the current

regime intends to manage change on the island - giving the

people more space to participate in the economy while

controlling their role in politics and civic life," said Ted

Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy at the

Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Some 95 percent of Cuba's 8.7 million residents over 16

years of age were expected to cast ballots with polling stations

on just about every block and where abstention is frowned on.


Reuters talked with more than half a dozen voters on Sunday

before they entered the polls in Havana. None of them knew the

candidates on the national slate from their districts.

"What's certain is they are all revolutionaries and that's

what matters," said retiree Eduardo Sanchez.

"I vote because I feel I have to, and it doesn't really

matter because the deputies have no power anyway," said one

young women, who declined to give her name.

The curious read biographies of candidates posted at the

polls, then cast paper ballots in cardboard voting boxes guarded

by school students.

Others simply entered the polls and checked a box for the

entire slate.

The candidates were equal to the number of positions up for

a vote, the only choice being to not vote for a certain

candidate or leave blank or spoil one's ballot.

"Cuban voters will check 'yea' or 'nay' from this new list

of candidates, so it's not a direct competition," said Julia

Sweig, director of Latin America studies and the Global Brazil

Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think


Nevertheless, she added, the slate of candidates represented

a big demographic and political step forward from the current


"Some 67 percent of the candidates are completely new picks,

and of these, more than 70 percent, were born after the

revolution. Women comprise 49 percent of the candidates and Afro

descendants 37 percent," Sweig said.

The deputies are elected for five-year terms.

The new assembly will meet this month to approve a

party-proposed slate for the Council of State, which Raul Castro

is expected to head for his second term. Council of State

members must be deputies.

The general election cycle began last year with the election

of more than 15,000 ward delegates in the only vote in which

residents choose between two or more candidates.

Party-controlled commissions then selected candidates for

provincial assemblies and the single-chamber national assembly,

at least 50 percent of whom must be ward delegates and the

remainder officials and personalities from the arts, sports and

other sectors.

The National Assembly usually meets just twice a year for a

week of committee and plenary meetings, though deputies remain

engaged between sessions while working their normal jobs and can

be relieved from work for assembly tasks.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Will Dunham and

Christopher Wilson)

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