Castro votes from sickbed in Cuban election

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HAVANA, Oct 21 (Reuters) An ailing Fidel Castro cast his ballot in private today in Cuba's municipal elections, which he said were a rejection of US pressures for political change in the communist state.

Castro, who has not appeared in public for 15 months, summoned an electoral official to his convalescence quarters to vote in the first elections since he turned over power to his brother Raul last year.

''The commander in chief expressed his confidence in the massive and enthusiastic turnout of our people in these elections that are an outright rejection of US President George W Bush's threats,'' government-run media reported.

''Bush is obsessed with Cuba,'' Castro said in a statement read out on state television. He criticized the war in Iraq and the torture of detainees at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Other Cuban officials said the turnout, expected to exceed 90 percent of voters, showed support for Cuba's one-party state in the face of stepped up efforts by Washington for political change in Cuba as Castro fades from the political stage.

Bush will announce new measures on Wednesday.

No images of Castro were released. Instead, Cuban television showed acting President Raul Castro voting and joking with school children.

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

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

''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.

''It's our own system. Every country has a right to have the one they want,'' said Evelio Hernandez, a graying territorial militia reserve who voted in a faded uniform and beret.

CASTRO RETIREMENT? The vote for 15,236 municipal council members is the start of an electoral process that will culminate in a new National Assembly in March. The 600-seat assembly could decide to officially replace Castro as head of state by approving a new president of Cuba's top executive body, the Council of State.

Castro ceded power in July 2006 for the first time since his 1959 revolution after emergency surgery for an undisclosed intestinal illness. A frail-looking Castro wearing pajamas has appeared in two pre-taped television interviews this year. He gave no indications that he intends to resume office.

Under Raul Castro, Cubans have begun openly discussing their country's future and ways to fix the inefficient state-run economy, amid widespread 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. ''Not everything is rosy here.'' Critics of Cuba's one-party system, mainly in the United States and Europe, consider it a travesty of democracy.

Dissidents 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 on Saturday.

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 party members, but most are.

Voting is not obligatory, but 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. Everything is decided from above.'' Reuters RKM VP0120

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