Cubans go to polls as dissident group harassed

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cubans voted yesterday in  municipal elections touted as proof of democracy on the  communist-led island, but at the same time the dissident  “Ladies in White” were manhandled by government supporters as  they tried to march for the freedom of political prisoners.

The simultaneous events showed the difficulties the Cuban  government faces as it tries to counter an authoritarian image  abroad while controlling opposition at home.

At least 95 per cent of the country’s 8.4 million eligible  voters were expected to cast a vote for delegates to local  assemblies across the country that deal with nuts-and-bolts  issues of municipal government.

The Communist Party is the only legal party in Cuba and the  nation’s top leaders are not directly elected by the people.

But Cuban officials say the local elections are an enviable  example of democracy for the rest of the world because of the  high turnout and the populist purity of the process.
“In no other part of the world do as many participate in  elections as in Cuba,” said Cuban vice president Esteban Lazo.

“The delegates are chosen by their own people, who nominate  the best and most capable,” he told reporters after voting.

Critics say the turnout is high because Cubans must vote or  face problems with local authorities.

Cuban television showed President Raul Castro casting his  vote in Havana, but ailing former leader Fidel Castro, 83, did  not make an appearance.

An electoral official said she had received a ballot from  the elder Castro, who has not been seen in public since July  2006, and she was shown dropping into a ballot box.

“He voted,” she said with a smile.

As Cuban television reported on the election, six members  of the Ladies in White tried to stage a protest march, as they  had every Sunday for seven years until a government clampdown  last week.

When they walked to their traditional starting point in the  middle of Havana’s Fifth Avenue, about 80 government supporters  converged to shove them across the street, into a nearby park.

There, the ladies linked arms in a circle and stood  silently while a jeering crowd of government supporters taunted  them with insults and slogans such as “this street belongs to  Fidel” for more than three hours.

The women, who are demanding freedom for their husbands and  sons imprisoned since a 2003 crackdown on dissidents, were  similarly treated last week when they tried to march and during  a week of protest marches in Havana last month.

The harassment, and the February death of a dissident  hunger striker, brought international condemnation of the Cuban  government, which said it would not give into “blackmail” it  believes is being perpetrated by the United States and Europe.

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