By Dalia Acosta
HAVANA, Cuba, January 24, 2008 – In national elections for the Cuban parliament’s next five-year term, all nominated candidates were elected, including President Fidel Castro, who has been away from government duties since Jul. 31, 2006 for health reasons.
”The 614 parliamentary candidates [for the National Assembly of Popular Power] and the 1,201 delegates to the provincial assemblies” were elected, the president of the National Electoral Commission, María Esther Reus, confirmed following Sunday’s polls, without mentioning any particular individuals’ names.
Reus, who is also Justice Minister, said at the first press conference to be held after voting closed on Sunday that, according to the preliminary figures,
8,230,832 people exercised their right to vote. The electoral register, which was being updated until the last minute, listed 8,687,229 electors.
If the preliminary figures are confirmed, 94.74 percent of those eligible voted. On examination, 95.24 percent of the votes for parliament were valid,
3.73 percent were blank votes and just over one percent were annulled.
The existence of blank and spoiled ballots was seen by Reus as evidence of democracy. ”Our electors have the freedom and the opportunity to exercise their legal right to vote in whatever way they wish,” the minister said.
A block vote for all the candidates, encouraged by the authorities as a gesture of support for the Cuban revolutionary process, was chosen by 91 percent of voters, slightly more than the 90.88 percent who took this option in the 2003 elections.
”I made use of the block vote as a matter of conscience,” said Castro on Sunday in a message sent to the state television channel.
”The block vote shows that the Cuban elections are a plebiscite. They are a vote for or against the Revolution,” Manuel Cuesta Morúa, spokesman for the moderate opposition coalition Arco Progresista, told IPS.
The National Assembly will convene on Feb. 24 to elect the 31-member Council of State — which during parliamentary recesses takes over as the highest authority in the country — as well as the Cuban president, the first vice president, five further vice presidents and a secretary. The president is elected by secret ballot.
In the view of local analysts, after several months of uncertainty, the indications are that Castro will again be designated president of the Council of State, a post he has held since the current institutional model was implemented in 1976, while the current Acting President, his brother Raúl Castro, will be re-elected first vice president.
However, popular opinion remains divided. A 42-year-old engineer told IPS that ”this would be the right moment to hand over to the people who are really governing. It doesn’t make sense for Fidel to stay on, and for us to carry on in this strange situation we’ve experienced for more than a year, in which he is there and yet he is not there,” she said.
A video only two minutes long, shown on national television last Wednesday, showed the 81-year-old Fidel Castro visibly recovered, in the best state of health that he has enjoyed since he was first subjected to a series of operations for an intestinal disorder in 2006.
Even so, Castro admitted on the same day that his health was still a limitation. ”I do not have the physical capability to go out and speak directly to the residents of the district which nominated me for Sunday’s elections. I do what I can: I write,” he said in a column he has been contributing regularly to the national press.
Nevertheless, having Fidel Castro at the head of the Cuban state appears to be seen by the government as important to guarantee continuity at a time when the country faces big changes, requested by a large proportion of its
11.2 million people.
A package of measures, mostly economic, may be expected in March or April, an economist at a government institution told IPS. ”People have been waiting for measures of this kind, but nothing was going to happen before the elections,” he said.
The new parliament must face ”complex times” and take ”great decisions,”
Acting President and Armed Forces Minister Raúl Castro told the press shortly after he voted on Sunday.
According to information from the National Electoral Commission, 63.29 percent of the members of the National Assembly were replaced in this election. Women occupy 43.16 percent of the seats, and the average age of members of parliament is 49.
Twenty-eight percent of its members are workers and small farmers, and
99.2 percent have completed secondary or higher education.
”This seventh legislative period beginning on Feb. 24 must face the new challenges arising, in the first place, from the present reality in Cuba, and also from the new political scenario in Latin America,” Reverend Raúl Suárez, one of the 224 members of parliament who were re-elected for another term, told IPS.
”From my political point of view, and I’m not an expert in politics, I think all the institutions of People’s Power should boost popular participation,” said Suárez, a Baptist pastor, and since 1987 the head of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre, who was also elected to parliament in 1993, 1998 and 2003.
Suárez said that he has tried to show that ”a believer can participate actively in politics in the context of a socialist project, without laying aside his or her faith or pastoral vocation.”
”As part of civil society, I think that our participation is vital. We, too, are the people, and as such we belong indissolubly to the whole of the people. The people already know our voice, it isn’t alien to them. And our voice speaks its own language. It is authentic, and not an echo,” he said. (IPS)