Cuban opposition stumbles at first election hurdle as Castro handover looms

Cuban opposition leaders said they failed to get anyone nominated as candidate for the upcoming municipal elections, stumbling at the first hurdle in a cycle that will end with a new president after 60 years of Castro brothers’ rule.

The handover from the revolutionary old guard to the next generation is coming at a tricky time for Cuba, battling to keep its detente with the United States alive and its economy afloat as aid from key ally Venezuela dwindles.

Dissidents blamed their electoral failure partly on repression by nervous authorities but said they had shown there were viable alternative voices in the one-party system. The government did not reply to a request for comment.

Cuba’s leaders say their elections are more democratic than western models characterized by big business and corruption. The country’s fractured opposition however calls them a farce and has traditionally boycotted them.

Neighbourhood nomination assemblies are held to choose candidates for the municipal elections that do not have to belong to the Communist Party.

However, candidates for provincial and national votes are nominated by commissions composed of representatives of Communist Party-controlled organizations such as the trade union federation.

The newly-elected national assembly will then in February vote for a president to replace Raul Castro, who promised to step down after two five-year terms, aged 86.

Still, opposition electoral platforms like Otro18 and Candidates for Change have emerged over the past few years seeking to change Cuba from within the system.

Several hundred dissidents had sought nomination as candidates at assemblies over the past month – an unprecedented amount – although none made it through, those two groups said.

Reuters was unable to independently verify that number and their endeavour was not documented by state-run media, meaning most ordinary Cubans did not hear about it.

Cuba said around 28,000 candidates overall had been selected in the island nation of 11.2 million inhabitants, to fill some 12,515 ward delegate positions.

Some Cubans hope the handover of power from the leaders of Cuba’s 1959 revolution to a new generation might bring about more political openness in Cuba.

Others neither expect nor want much to change, pointing out Castro will remain head of the Communist Party.

Several dissidents told Reuters authorities prevented them from attending or speaking up at their neighbourhood nomination assemblies over the past month, shifting the dates around or seeking to intimidate them.

The postponement of the electoral cycle by a month, allegedly due to Hurricane Irma, also put a spanner in the works for several dissidents, who had already planned trips abroad.

The Communist Party says it does not intervene in the elections. Cuba brands all dissenters as mercenaries funded by foreign governments and exiles, out to topple the government.

In 2015, two dissidents managed to get nominated but said election officials altered their autobiographies to say they had ties to “counter-revolutionaries” based or financed abroad.

One of those, Hildebrando Chaviano, said he did not even attend his assembly this year, saying he felt it would be a “circus”. That assembly ended up nominating the current municipal delegate, a party veteran, for another term.

The dissidents said they would continue taking part in grassroots politics to get their voice heard. Chaviano said he was giving courses on leadership and economics.

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Mareeg senior news editor since 2001 and he can be reached at news@mareeg.com