Cuba Holds a Stacked Election Amid the Biggest Population Exodus Since the Revolution

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(Bloomberg) -- Cuba is holding elections Sunday to pick lawmakers at a time when the ruling communist party is struggling to keep a lid on public anger caused by rampant inflation, hunger and blackouts.

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The vote, decried as a sham by human rights groups, will pick 470 candidates who were pre-selected by the government to the powerful National Parliament for a five-year term. The system has allowed the Communist Party to control the parliament since its inception in 1976.

Given the party’s tight grip on the island, the only way to gauge anti-government feeling is through the number who annul their vote or refuse to participate, said Juan Antonio Blanco, a political analyst and founder of Cuba Siglo 21, a Florida-based think tank.

The stacked election comes as blackouts, crop failures, fuel shortages and US sanctions are all hammering the economy, and gross domestic product remains below its pre-pandemic level. With little prospect of change, Cubans are fleeing in the biggest exodus since the communist party took power six decades ago.

Nearly a quarter of a million were intercepted at the US border in the 12 months ending in September, about 2% of the island’s total population, and up more than 400% from a year ago. The rate has dropped significantly since the US changed the rules of entry in January but remains high.

The government led by President Miguel Diaz-Canel reacted to outbreaks of unrest in 2021 with a crackdown on dissent, but by also opening up opportunities for the private sector in the economy. However, the reforms haven’t come fast enough to ease hardship, and mass emigration is another headwind for the economy, said Carlos Saladrigas, the chairman of the Cuba Study Group, a Florida-based think tank.

“The government, the health care system, everyone is complaining about losing workers to migration,” Saladrigas said.

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The economy will expand just 1.5% this year according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, down from 2% in 2022. Consumer prices rose 39% last year, after soaring 401% in 2021 after the peso was devalued.

The government insists the vote is a unique form of democracy and is urging citizens to head to the polls and check a single box that approves all 470 candidates, as a show of mass defiance against US sanctions. Diaz-Canel wrote on Twitter that the party was hoping for “an energetic and undeniable victory,” in the election.

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