As Cuba election day nears, some voters ask, 'why bother?'
HAVANA, March 22 (Reuters) - Like a growing number of Cubans, 77-year-old Havana resident Humberto Avila says he will likely sit out Sunday's legislative elections.
The retired university professor says he's done the math - 470 candidates, 470 open seats - and sees no point in voting.
"That's the same number of candidates as open seats," he told Reuters. "There are no choices."
In Cuba, government-organized selection committees choose the candidates, who must then receive more than 50% of validly-cast votes in their district to earn a seat in the National Assembly, the country's highest lawmaking body. Political campaigning is illegal.
Cuba says the system promotes unity and action, reducing the sway of money in politics. Critics say it lacks transparency and amounts to a rubber stamp for one-party rule.
Either way, declining turnout could threaten the new assembly's credibility and - amid a deep economic downturn - add to a growing sense of malaise in a country that has been a Communist-run state since shortly after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
"More is at stake than ever before," said Bert Hoffmann, a Latin America expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.
"With the crisis in the economy and society, the political mobilization power of the state and the party is eroding," he said.
Abstention has spiked in recent elections, rising to a four-decade high of 31% of eligible voters in municipal elections in November.
While that rate is still modest in comparison to many Western democracies, it marks a drastic change from elections under former leader Fidel Castro, when nearly every Cuban of voting age typically cast a ballot.
Yuliesky Amador, a law professor at Cuba's University of Artemisa, told Reuters that the economic crisis, soaring prices, and recurring power blackouts will make this election the most "complex" since 1993, following the collapse of Cuba's former benefactor the Soviet Union.
"Many people are saying, 'I am not going to vote because the elections do not solve my problems,'" he said, calling it a "punishment vote."
Groups primarily outside Cuba have launched a campaign encouraging abstention, calling the electoral process a "farce" in videos circulated on social media.
Amador said a recent record-breaking exodus of Cubans will further complicate the picture.
Many of an estimated 300,000 Cubans who left for the United States last year - nearly 3% of the island's population - remain on the voting rolls, he said.
"It's worrying because we're not talking only about abstention," he said. "We're talking about a substantial percentage of people who won't be here to vote on March 26."
'UNITY VOTE' PLEA
Cuba's government has encouraged participation in Sunday's election, touting a "unity vote" - in which Cubans check a circle to approve every candidate on their ballot - as a show of patriotism.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel is himself a candidate for the National Assembly, who will choose the next president - widely expected to be Diaz-Canel - from among their number.
In a series of "exchanges" with voters in his home city of Santa Clara, aired in part on state-run television, he has slammed the United States for a Cold War-era trade embargo that contributes to the island's ongoing economic woes.
"This vote is for the Revolution ... and to continue to defend our socialist system," Diaz-Canel told textile workers in Santa Clara.
For some Cubans both young and old Reuters spoke to, those arguments make sense.
Rey Lazaro Blanco, a 19-year old geography student at the University of Havana, told Reuters he will vote on Sunday.
"We live in a country with shortages and a million problems," he said. "But we should never lose hope that things can get better."
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