Cuba holds first local vote without Castro

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HAVANA, Oct 21 (Reuters) Cubans voted today to elect more than 15,000 municipal council members in the first elections since ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother last year.

Cubans lined up to cast ballots in urns guarded by school children for neighborhood candidates whose photograph and resume were posted on shop windows in a poll devoid of campaigning.

''Here the people propose the candidates. There is no money involved,'' said Luisa Barrueco, a retired nurse, emerging from a voting booth in the central Havana district of Vedado.

State television urged Cubans to vote in the elections, the start of an electoral process that will culminate in a new National Assembly in March.

The 600-seat assembly could formalize the retirement of Castro, whose failing health forced him to relinquish power 15 months ago for the first time since his 1959 revolution.

Castro has not appeared in public since emergency surgery for an undisclosed intestinal illness in July 2006.

''Long live Fidel and Raul,'' a television presenter said in a government statement that warned Cubans the elections were being held in the face of ''hostility, threats and aggression'' from Cuba's arch-enemy, the United States.

Cuban television broadcast cartoons satirizing the US electoral system for being controlled by big money.

As Castro fades from the political stage, Cubans have begun openly discussing their country's future and ways to fix the communist state's inefficient economy, amid complaints about low wages and deficient public services and housing.

''Fidel is not eternal. Despite his delicate health, he could continue to be our guide while younger leaders emerge,'' Barrueco said. ''Everything is not rosy here.'' Critics of Cuba's one-party system, mainly in the United States and Europe, say it is a travesty of democracy. The US government has stepped up pressure for Cuba to open up to multi-party democracy and US President George W Bush will announce new measures on Wednesday.

Cuba's small dissident groups boycott the elections, saying they are a farce.

Cuba says its ''socialist democracy'' is cleaner than the US electoral system because votes cannot be bought.

''Our elections are the antithesis of those held in the United States ... There, first you have to be very rich, or have an enormous amount of money behind you,'' Fidel Castro wrote in a newspaper column published yesterday.

The only legal party in Cuba is the Communist Party. Cuban government officials insist that candidates are not picked by the party but publicly chosen in neighborhood meetings.

Candidates do not have to be card-carrying party members, but most are. Independent candidates have little chance of rising through the pyramidal system.

Voting is not obligatory, but more than 90 percent of Cubans are expected to turn out. Failure to do so is frowned upon in local neighborhood committees.

''These elections won't resolve the problems we have,'' said Edel, a student who asked not to be fully named. ''The delegates can't do anything. Here everything is decided from above.'' REUTERS GL PM2115

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