Cuba is approaching a generational change in government amid difficult circumstances and a population less interested in politics, according to preliminary returns from Sunday elections on the island that showed a record 17.1 percent of the voters did not participate.
The election also put First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, apparent successor to Raúl Castro, under a spotlight as Castro made a low-key visit to Santiago de Cuba, where he's rumored to be planning to live after he retires as promised in April.
The legislative National Assembly of Peoples Power selected on Sunday is scheduled to appoint the new president when it first meets on April 19.
Official but preliminary figures from Sunday's vote also show that the government could not muster the uniformity of past elections. In fact, it was the lowest voter turnout since the communist government implemented the electoral system in 1976.
Aside from the 17.1 percent who did not vote, nearly 20 percent did not fill in the “all candidates” box on the ballots, defying government and official media calls for a “united” vote.
The National Electoral Commission (CEN) told a news conference Monday that 94.42 percent of the votes cast were valid, compared to past elections when around 10 percent of the votes were void or blank.
Opposition activists in the campaign Cubadecide had urged Cubans to void their ballots. But CEN officials said only 1.26 percent of the votes were voided and declared the elections “a triumph” and “a reaffirmation of the Cuban electoral system.” Cubadecide is led by Rosa María Paya, daughter of the late opposition leader Oswaldo Paya, who was killed in a dubious car wreck in 2012.
CEN President Alina Balseiro Gutiérrez said the preliminary figures could change because more than 300,000 voters were registered at the last minute. Cuba has a population of about 11.2 million people, of which nearly nine million are eligible to vote.
Sunday’s elections were for provincial councils and the 605 candidates for the 605 seats on the national legislature. There were no contested seats. The candidates were selected by the Candidates Commissions, made up of government officials and members of pro-government organizations.
The first round of voting for local councils in November already hinted at the drop in turnout. Preliminary figures put it at 85.94 percent, the lowest in four decades. Authorities later raised the figure to 89.02 percent, a slight increase over the 2015 elections.
Several officials who spoke to the news media Sunday indicated that the elections were different this year because more important questions are at play.
Díaz-Canel, 57, solidified his image as Castro's likely successor with a 10-minute chat with journalists after he voted Sunday in which he discussed the goals and challenges facing the next president.
“We are building a government-people relationship,” he said. “The government we're electing today will be a government that will come from the people. The people are going to participate in the decisions taken by this government … and the people also can revoke anyone who does not carry out their responsibilities.”
Díaz-Canel added that the next government will focus on solving Cuba's problems, and listed the many challenges facing the generational transfer of power.
“We are defending a revolution that is still under attack, amid a complicated world and regional situation … and the updating of our economic model,” he said. The update has not gone as well as expected “because it is more complex than we thought.”
Díaz-Canel also took the time to pay tribute to Raúl and Fidel Castro and the other so-called “historic” leaders of the Cuban revolution.
The election, he said, should be seen as a commitment “to the historical generation … that forged the revolution, and is a tribute to Fidel. I believe it's also an endorsement of Raúl, our president, who's the one leading the updating.”
Díaz-Canel was joined by his wife, Liz Cuesta Peraza, when they voted in the central city of Santa Clara — unusual for revolutionary Cuba, where spouses are seldom seen in official functions.
Cuesta is director of academic services at the Paradiso Agency of the Culture Ministry.
Castro voted early Sunday in Segundo Frente, a mountainous municipality near the eastern city of Santiago that includes the mausoleum where his wife Vilma Espín is buried. He is expected to be buried with her. Castro later toured the municipality and attended a children's theater performance but made no consequential statements.
Castro is reportedly preparing a house in Santiago for after he leaves the presidency, although he is expected to continue to lead the Cuban Communist Party, the country’s only legal party. The house is in the Raja Yoga neighborhood, according to opposition activist José Daniel Ferrer, and is surrounded by security agents whenever Castro visits the city.
José Ramón Machado Ventura, second secretary of the Communist Party and vice president of the government, appeared to confirm Sunday that he would join Castro in retirement. Machado Ventura and two other historic leaders of the revolution, Ramiro Valdés and Guillermo García, are expected to obey term and age limits proposed by Castro.
“We are practically already in that future transition that was talked about, although we have been in transition since January 1 of 1959. Now the change is generational,” Machado Ventura told journalists when he voted in the eastern city of Guantánamo.
Opposition activists and independent journalists complained about other aspects of the elections.
Paya complained that some of the Cubadecide activists who wanted to monitor the vote counts were detained by police.
“The Castro regime was unable to deter Cubadecide's monitoring of polling places, despite arresting, harrassing, or obstructing dozens of observers and activists in numerous cities,” the organization said in a statement. “These actions by the regime clearly show that in practice the voting process is not transparent, free, nor fair.”
The digital news site 14ymedio, run by independent journalist Yoani Sánchez, noted that more than 95 percent of the national lawmakers elected Sunday had something in common: they were members of the CCP or the Young Communists Union.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres