OCTOBER 17 2007 21:48h
The legislature could well become an important resonance chamber for debate on Cuba`s future as Castro fades from the political stage.
There are no campaigns or TV ads and only one party gets to field candidates in Sunday's local elections in communist Cuba, the first without ailing Fidel Castro in charge.
Yet Cubans are expected to turn out massively to elect 15,236 municipal council members in a pyramidal voting process that will culminate in a new National Assembly in March.
The legislature, a rubber-stamp parliament until now, could well become an important resonance chamber for debate on Cuba's future as the 81-year-old Castro, who has led the country since a 1959 revolution, fades from the political stage.
With Castro sidelined by illness and his low-profile brother Raul Castro running Cuba since last year, the Communist Party has urged young Cubans to stand in this year's elections to pump new blood into the country's political leadership.
"We are young and fresh, the relievers, ready to guarantee that the Revolution continues," said Jose Angel Garcia, 41, a carpenter who repairs doors and shutters of schools in dilapidated central Havana, Cuba's most crowded district.
Under posters of Fidel and Raul Castro pinned to the walls of his workshop, and the slogan "A better world is possible," Garcia says if elected he will press for repairs of the drains in his neighborhood, where sea water comes up the toilets when waves pound the Malecon sea wall a block away.
Around the corner, five-term incumbent Felix Revilla, 72, is a veteran of the Sierra Maestra guerrilla war who sticks to the well-worn official line that all Cuba's problems are the fault of its arch-enemy, the United States.
"We've endured great hardships due to the American blockade," Revilla said, blaming U.S. trade sanctions for Cuba's crumbling and overcrowded housing, poor public transport and the lack of consumers goods longed for by many Cubans.
Sitting outside the Palace cinema, where the last picture show was in the mid-1960s and a homeless family now lives with pig and chickens, Revilla points at a crippled building across the street, promising "We're going to build apartments there."
The former Romeo and Julieta cigar factory, built in 1905, was declared too dangerous to live in two decades ago, but 31 families are still there because authorities have nowhere else to house them. Another 51 families were finally evacuated last month when a floor caved in.
Angry occupants said Sunday's elections were pointless.
"I won't vote for anyone. What for? Our delegate is useless. Nobody has helped us. Look at where I live," said Ivon Santana, 29, a hospital auxiliary.
She and other women in the building accused Revilla, who heads a construction brigade, of selling on the black market materials handed out by the state, a charge he denied when he heard about it through an informant.
Campaign publicity is limited to the candidate's photograph and CV stuck to shop windows.
Candidates do not have to be card-carrying members of the Communist Party, but most are. Nominations were handled by the Committees to Defend the Revolution, neighborhood watch groups set up by the government on almost every block in Cuba.
Voting is not obligatory in Cuba, but officials expect 95 percent of the voting population to turn up at polling stations. Staying away can raise eyebrows in the neighborhood.
Cuba says its electoral system, set up in 1976, is the most democratic in the world because money cannot buy votes and delegates are chosen at the neighborhood level and then get elected to the provincial and national assemblies.
Critics call it a travesty of democracy that should be replaced by multi-party elections.
"The Communist Party wants to make it look like a new generation is emerging," said Cuba's best-known dissident, Oswaldo Paya. "Cubans are tired of this system and want to see real change."