Defying expectations, Cuba says legislative elections had strong turnout

HAVANA — Cuban government officials say over 75% of eligible voters cast ballots Sunday in the legislative election, despite expectations of lower voter turnout due to increasing discontent on the island over economic hardship.

The turnout rate is largely used as a support indicator for the communist government, which is why in the last several months Cubans saw an extensive TV, social media and schools campaign to get out the vote, promoting a “unity vote" for the National Assembly candidates.

Meanwhile, opposition groups in Cuba and overseas exhorted people to abstain from voting, saying there are no opposition candidates and casting a vote would not make an impact of people’s lives.

The government said Cubans voted to endorse 470 people running for 470 seats, including candidates chosen in local elections and others representing groups such as labor unions. All the candidates were vetted by Communist Party officials and there were no opposition candidates.

The National Assembly votes for the president, prime minister and approves laws backed by the Communist Party. It is expected to re-elect President Miguel Díaz-Canel on April 19.

Cubans in Havana vote in legislative elections on Sunday, March 26, 2023. (Roberto Leon / NBC News)
Cubans in Havana vote in legislative elections on Sunday, March 26, 2023. (Roberto Leon / NBC News)

Dairis Fontes Díaz, 32, who works in the tourism industry, was one of those who cast a ballot.

“I vote for the revolution because these elections are very important for our electoral system,” she said. “We elect candidates from the base of our society and they are the best people that our neighborhoods have to represent the population.”

Lázaro Fernández, 40, didn’t vote in Sunday’s election.

“I don’t think these elections interest anyone much,” said Fernández, as he fished in Havana’s famed malecón seawall. “They don’t mean anything to me. It’s the same thing. They go to the Assembly and what? Nothing happens.”

“I’m here to see if I catch a fish, which is what will help my situation,” he said.

Voter participation had been declining in previous elections and it was expected to decrease further on Sunday, as grievances grow over Cuba’s economic turmoil.

In recent years, there has been increasing frustration on the island as people grapple with inflation as well as shortages in food, medicine and electricity. The effects of the pandemic on the tourism industry, tightened U.S. sanctions and Cuba’s economic model have made daily life daunting for the majority of Cubans. The situation contributed to islandwide protests in 2021 and a historic wave of migration.

Roughly 68% of eligible voters participated in last November’s municipal elections. While the rate is high for international standards, it’s not for Cuba, where voting is considered a national duty. Candidates for government use to garner a “yes” vote well above 90%.

Cuba does not allow independent, international observers to monitor elections.

The U.S. embassy in Havana called Sunday's election “antidemocratic” in a tweet, writing, “the Cuban people deserve real choices in real elections that feature candidates from more than a single party and beyond the Communist Party.”

Brian Nichols, U.S. assistant secretary for Western hemisphere affairs, tweeted that “when the only choice is the Communist party and closed committees choose candidates to run unopposed, there is no democracy, only autocracy and misery.”

But the government says their electoral system is inclusive and stays away from campaigning and big money donations.

Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz Canel tweeted on Monday a picture of himself voting and wrote in Spanish, “Since yesterday we said it: we trust our people, who went out and defended the Revolution.”

And he continued: “Despite the draconian measures of the U.S., despite the ferocious campaign and the calls for absenteeism, #CubaGanó.” (which translates to #CubaWon.)

Members of the legislature include Elián González, who was only 5 years old when he became the center of a high-profile international custody battle. González was rescued by a fisherman in November 1999 after his mother and others drowned trying to reach the U.S.  His relatives in Miami wanted to keep him in the U.S. but he was eventually returned to his father in Cuba.

Mariela Castro, an LGBTQ advocate and daughter of the late former leader Raúl Castro, is also a legislator.

NBC News producer Orlando Matos reported from Havana and Carmen Sesin from Miami.

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