Clinging to hope that Raul Castro's promise to step down in February will open the door to a political transition in Cuba, more than 100 dissidents launched an effort across the island to place themselves on the ballot of upcoming elections.
The Castro government response? Not happening.
Not one of the 175 independent candidates who were part of the #Otro18 campaign made it to onto the ballot in the Nov. 26 elections for municipal Peoples Power councils, the lowest level of government in Cuba.
Quick trials, arrests and intimidation were some of the strategies used by authorities to block dissidents from becoming candidates, several opposition activists have publicly stated.
The Cuban government and the police "violated election laws from one end to the other, in a thousand ways," said Manuel Cuesta Morua, coordinator of the #Otro18 campaign.
Officials interfered systematically with the "nominating assemblies," in which residents of electoral districts gather to approve the candidates who will be listed in the ballots, Cuesta Morua told el Nuevo Herald.
"In some cases they arrested would-be candidates on the day of the assemblies and took them to distant places, creating a climate of pressure and intimidation among voters," he said. "In other cases they disqualified candidates. They could not intimidate the community, so they invalidated their candidacies."
Cuba's electoral laws ban candidates with criminal records. At least four opposition hopefuls were convicted in "express trials" in order to disqualify them as candidates, Cuesta Morua added.
Jose Casares Soto was sentenced to five years on a charge of contempt that had been pending since 2012.
And Armando Abascal was convicted in a speedy trial on charges of "incitement to commit a crime" after he was identified as the leader of a September protest in the Southern Cuba town of Perico. Protesters were complaining about the slow restoration of electricity and water after Hurricane Irma. Many of Abascal's neighbors had promised to support his efforts to become a candidate, but Cuban authorities quickly arrested him.
Some 12,215 candidates will be elected to municipal councils across the island of 11 million people. Provincial and national balloting will conclude with the election of the national parliament, then the selection of a new head of state to replace Castro will follow.
In theory, those elected to municipal councils can then run for the provincial assemblies and the national legislature. But "candidate commissions" made up of groups controlled by the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC) in fact select the candidates at the provincial and national levels.
"No political parties other than the Communist Party are legal. Although most local candidates are not party members and the law prohibits the party from endorsing candidates, it has the ability to influence elections by mobilizing its members against candidates it regards as dissidents," William LeoGrande, an American University expert on Cuba, wrote recently in World Politics Review. "That's what it did in 2015, when two dissidents nominated by their neighbors as candidates for municipal councils in Havana were both easily defeated in the general election."
Even against the odds, part of the Cuban opposition wanted to try the electoral road, to expand their legitimacy if they won or prove that the process is unfair if they were blocked, several dissidents said. Others, like Antonio Rodiles and Ailer Gonzalez, frown on the idea of participating in a process they branded as "a farce."
Even though the opposition's chances of success were minimal, the Cuban government took the challenge very seriously.
A leaked video of a CPC meeting in February showed Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who is Castro's apparent successor, saying that the government planned to "discredit" candidates it viewed as "counterrevolutionaries. He added: "We are totally engaged in this process, in this battle we are fighting."
Another organization that backed independent nomination campaigns, Candidatos por el Cambio (Candidates for Change) also reported several detentions designed to block its members from winning endorsements in the nominating councils.
Zelandia de la Caridad Perez Abreu told Martinoticias that State Security agents summoned her to a meeting at a police station at 5 p.m. on Oct. 23, the same time that her electoral district was holding its nominating council. Police did not free her until after 9 p.m. when the council had ended.
The independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported 578 arbitrary detentions for political motives during the month of October, the highest number this year.
In other cases, the methods used by the Cuban government to turn away dissidents from the electoral process were less dramatic -- as simple as hiding the date and time of the nominating gatherings.
In the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, none of the residents of one building were notified about their district's gathering because they were all going to vote for an independent would-be candidate, said Cuesta Morua.
"In other cases, they posted police and State Security agents around the places where the nominating councils were to be held to intimidate the neighbors," he added.
"I was surprised that the government worked so hard to prevent any of the Otro18 candidates from even being nominated," LeoGrande said. "Diaz-Canel's video indicates that the state was very concerned about these candidates, and I think it indicates a realization of how much discontent there is at the grassroots in Cuba."
Candidatos por el Cambio also complained about the government's decision to postpone the balloting from October to November to avoid interfering with the work to recover from Hurricane Irma. Dissidents said the delay was designed to allow time for tempers to cool, because of the snail's pace of recovery.
The government's attempt to sell articles that had been donated for hurricane relief, the delays in assistance deliveries to some heavily affected areas and the fact that neither Castro nor Diaz-Canel ever toured those areas generated "discomfort among the people," said Felix Yuniel Llerena, a Baptist church activist in western Cuba.
"The problems are growing sharper," Llerena said. The next round of balloting "could see a lower turnout, more abstentions, votes left blank or voided."
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