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Fidel Castro Votes to ‘Update Cuban Socialist Model’

HAVANA, Feb 6 2013 (IPS) - Among millions of people flocking to the polls in Cuba to vote in general elections was the unexpected figure of former president Fidel Castro, making a surprise public appearance in what was interpreted as a reaffirmation of his support for the government of his brother, President Raúl Castro.

Former president Fidel Castro voting in Cuba on Sunday Feb. 3. Credit: Marcelino Vázquez Hernández/AIN

“Nothing is fortuitous: Fidel is (showing) his support for updating the economic model and the transformations that derive from it,” an analyst who asked not to be identified told IPS.

Castro cast his ballot and talked to Cuban media Sunday at his polling station in the municipality of Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square) in the capital, Havana.

The former president said, “It is our duty to update the Cuban socialist model, modernise it, but without committing errors.” He also spoke about the health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez who is convalescing in Havana from a cancer operation, saying he receives daily information about Chávez’s health and adding that he is “much better”.

Fidel, Cuba’s historic leader, became seriously ill in 2006. In 2008, after his resignation, the National Assembly (the single-chamber parliament) elected Raúl Castro to be president of the 31-member Council of State, which according to the constitution “is the highest representative of the Cuban state”.

Since then, Fidel’s chair has remained vacant at parliamentary sessions. Sunday’s elections were called to renew provincial assemblies and the parliament, and the former president was among the candidates. “Fidel is already a member of parliament,” said the source, without further comment.

The unique Cuban electoral system calls for half of the 612 candidates to the same number of seats in the legislature to be selected by municipal assemblies, elected in November of the previous year. The other half are nominated by a candidacy commission made up of mass organisations.

Voting is direct, by secret ballot, and electors can vote for one, several or all the candidates in their electoral circuit, a territorial division of municipalities and the basis of the Cuban electoral system. The only electoral campaign advertising allowed in Cuba is the publication of candidates’ biographies.

Critics of the Cuban political system claim that for elections to be valid, opposition candidates should be allowed so that voters have real options. But the official response is that Cuban elections are more democratic because of the mass participation of citizens and the quality of the candidates.

The slate of 612 candidates represents the renewal of two-thirds of the current parliament. The average age among the candidates is 48; nearly 49 percent are women, 37 percent are Afro-descendants or of mixed ancestry, and around 83 percent have higher education.

The authorities are trying to encourage more active participation by young people in the electoral process and in government institutions. State media highlighted that 53 of the candidates are under 35 years of age, and many of the polling stations were staffed by youth. All the ballot boxes were guarded by school children.

“This shows that the new generations are willing to participate in government,” Alejandro Domínguez, a 20-year-old university student, told IPS. But “the decision to become a legislator can change your life. Many young people do not look at politics as a career path they want to follow. It is not part of young people’s aspirations,” he said.

A notable absence from the candidate slate was Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly since 1993. Roberto Fernández Retamar, president of Casa de las Américas, a cultural organisation founded by the Cuban government in 1959, and Marcia Cobas, deputy health minister, responsible for the export of medical services, were also missing from the list.

Newly nominated candidates, on the other hand, include Ricardo Cabrisas, the vice president of government responsible for foreign trade; Mariela Castro Espín, director of the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX) and the daughter of President Raúl Castro; and Bruno Rodríguez, the foreign minister.

Rodríguez received another important promotion in December 2012, when he was appointed to the Political Bureau of the governing Cuban Communist Party (PCC), the only legal party in the country.

According to the electoral laws, the new National Assembly must meet within 45 days of the elections and designate the 31 members of the Council of State, including its president, for a five-year term.

Raúl Castro’s re-election is taken for granted.

However, this will be his final term as president, if the provision approved by the PCC’s Sixth Congress in April 2011 — according to which high political positions are to be limited to two consecutive five-year mandates — is ratified by the National Assembly and written into the constitution.

President Castro himself suggested in early 2012 at the close of the PCC National Conference that this, and other, decisions of the Party Congress could gradually begin to be applied without waiting for constitutional reform.

The president also anticipated changes in the statutes and other PCC foundation documents.

Raúl Castro has repeatedly expressed concern over the lack of young people with the ability to take on the complex task of directing the party, the state and the government. It is a task, he has said, that “has strategic importance for the revolution”.

Miguel Díaz-Canel, vice president of the Council of Ministers and head of higher education, stressed that reform of the economic model will this year enter a phase of more complex changes, creating a demand for National Assembly members who are sufficiently prepared to participate actively and responsibly in this process.

* With additional reporting from Ivet González in Havana.

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