Havana: Cubans voted on Sunday in municipal elections touted as proof of democracy on the communist-led island, while the dissident "Ladies in White" were harassed by government supporters for seven hours as they tried to march for the freedom of political prisoners.
The prolonged "act of repudiation" against the six women, who could barely be seen in the engulfing crowd of about 100 people, took some of the lustre off a day the Cuban government hoped would counter an authoritarian image it blames on its enemies abroad.
It also signalled an escalation in the government`s clampdown on the Ladies in White, whose weekly marches for seven years have made them the leading symbol of Cuban opposition. The women are seeking the release of their husbands and sons imprisoned since a 2003 crackdown on dissidents.
An hour before the polls closed, officials said 93 percent of Cuba`s 8.4 million voters had cast a vote for delegates to local assemblies that deal with nuts-and-bolts issues of municipal government.
The Communist Party is the only legal party in Cuba and the nation`s top leaders are not directly elected by the people.
Critics say the turnout is high because Cubans must vote or face problems with local authorities.
Cuban officials say the local elections are an enviable example of democracy for the rest of the world because of the high turnout and the populist purity of the process.
"In no other part of the world do as many participate in elections as in Cuba," said Cuban Vice President Esteban Lazo.
"The delegates are chosen by their own people, who nominate the best and most capable," he told reporters after voting.
Cuban television showed President Raul Castro casting his vote in Havana, but ailing former leader Fidel Castro, 83, did not make an appearance.
An electoral official said she had received a ballot from the elder Castro, who has not been seen in public since July 2006, and she was shown dropping into a ballot box.
"He voted," she said with a smile.
As Cuban television reported on the election, the small contingent of the Ladies in White tried to stage their weekly protest march on Havana`s Fifth Avenue, but they were swarmed by government supporters who roughly shoved then into a nearby park.
There, the white-clad ladies linked arms in a circle and stood silently while the jeering crowd taunted them with insults and slogans such as "this street belongs to Fidel”. The women tried to leave several times, but were prevented by the crowd.
Finally, after seven hours, the stalemate ended with them agreeing to be escorted by a ring of state security agents to a government-provided bus that took them out of harm`s way.