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.