HAVANA (AP) — The man widely seen as Cuba's next president delivered a defiant rejection of demands for change in the island's single-party system as he participated Sunday in the first in a series of elections expected to end with his taking over from Raul Castro next year.
First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel said the voting will deliver a message to the world.
"What message? Unity. Conviction. A message that our people don't bow down, not to a hurricane and even less to external pressure and some people's desire to see our system change," the normally laconic Diaz-Canel said in an unusually lengthy series of statements to members of the foreign and state-run press.
Diaz-Canel's message appeared to refer mostly to the Trump administration, which has tightened restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba and stopped issuing visas to Cubans at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The measures have been accompanied by tough talk about the U.S. administration's desire for change in Cuba, where the Communist Party-led government maintains tight control of virtually every aspect of political and economic life.
Cuba's electoral process begins with neighborhood meetings to select candidates for municipal councils. Dissidents groups said a record number of their supporters attempted to stand for nomination this year but were thwarted by state security agents who prevented them from attending the meetings, among other tactics. The municipal elections themselves were delayed more than a month by Hurricane Irma, which damaged large swaths of Cuba's northern coast.
The country prohibits campaigning and political platforms: On Sunday, millions of Cubans turned out for local elections, in which voters in each district chose between two candidates whose bare-bones biographies were posted on the walls of voting stations. Results of the votes are expected to be released Monday.
Sunday's winners will form a pool of thousands of officials from which commissions will pick candidates for Cuba's provincial and national assemblies. After votes for those bodies in coming months, the new national assembly will pick the president and other top officials.
Castro, 86, has said he will step down in February, and most observers believe Diaz-Canel, 57, will be selected to succeed him. Castro was shown voting Sunday but made no public statements. Diaz-Canel declined to address the expectations he will take over by February, but spoke for several minutes about the historical significance of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who died a year ago Saturday, and the need for Cuban youth to support the country's socialist system.
Without differing political platforms to choose from, Cuban elections serve in part as gauges of government support, as measured by turnout. Many young Cubans, in particular, say they are disenchanted by the slow pace of reforms to a system that makes it hard to earn a living in the state-run economy and severely limits opportunities for work in the small private sector.
Diaz-Canel was the highest-ranking official at a concert held on the steps of the University of Havana on Saturday night in tribute to Fidel Castro, who died Nov. 25, 2016, at age 90.
He told The Associated Press that he was optimistic about the attitude of Cuban youths toward the system founded by Fidel Castro in 1959 and led by a member of the Castro family for nearly six decades.
"When one sees young people gathering in solidarity in the name of the Cuban people, feeling so much for Fidel, I'm convinced that we'll see the youth and the Cuban people out defending the revolution at the polls tomorrow," Diaz-Canel said.
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