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By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans went to the polls on Sunday to elect a Communist Party-selected slate of 612 deputies to the National Assembly at a time of change in how they live and work, but not in how they vote.
Veteran leader Fidel Castro, 86, made a rare appearance on Sunday to cast his ballot. He voted from home in local elections last year and in 2008 when the current assembly was elected, according to the National Information Agency.
President Raul Castro and other leaders were shown on state-run television casting their ballots and commenting on the importance of the election as a show of support for reforms and independence from the United States.
Raul Castro is decentralizing the state-dominated economy, allowing more space for private initiative in agriculture and retail services and has lifted many restrictions on personal freedoms, such as travel and buying and selling homes and cars.
Castro, since taking over from older brother Fidel in 2008, has also introduced term limits (two five-year stints) for top government posts, but has drawn the line at legalizing other political parties and contested elections.
"Renouncing the principle of a single party would be equal to legalizing one or more imperialist parties," Castro said at a Party conference last year.
He insisted critics, and even some friends, did not take into account the "abnormal state of siege" the country is experiencing.
"The one-party elections in Cuba, alongside steady but slow progress on opening the economy, represent how the current regime intends to manage change on the island - giving the people more space to participate in the economy while controlling their role in politics and civic life," said Ted Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Some 95 percent of Cuba's 8.7 million residents over 16 years of age were expected to cast ballots with polling stations on just about every block and where abstention is frowned on.
Reuters talked with more than half a dozen voters on Sunday before they entered the polls in Havana. None of them knew the candidates on the national slate from their districts.
"What's certain is they are all revolutionaries and that's what matters," said retiree Eduardo Sanchez.
"I vote because I feel I have to, and it doesn't really matter because the deputies have no power anyway," said one young women, who declined to give her name.
The curious read biographies of candidates posted at the polls, then cast paper ballots in cardboard voting boxes guarded by school students.
Others simply entered the polls and checked a box for the entire slate.
The candidates were equal to the number of positions up for a vote, the only choice being to not vote for a certain candidate or leave blank or spoil one's ballot.
"Cuban voters will check 'yea' or 'nay' from this new list of candidates, so it's not a direct competition," said Julia Sweig, director of Latin America studies and the Global Brazil Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank.
Nevertheless, she added, the slate of candidates represented a big demographic and political step forward from the current assembly.
"Some 67 percent of the candidates are completely new picks, and of these, more than 70 percent, were born after the revolution. Women comprise 49 percent of the candidates and Afro descendants 37 percent," Sweig said.
The deputies are elected for five-year terms.
The new assembly will meet this month to approve a party-proposed slate for the Council of State, which Raul Castro is expected to head for his second term. Council of State members must be deputies.
The general election cycle began last year with the election of more than 15,000 ward delegates in the only vote in which residents choose between two or more candidates.
Party-controlled commissions then selected candidates for provincial assemblies and the single-chamber national assembly, at least 50 percent of whom must be ward delegates and the remainder officials and personalities from the arts, sports and other sectors.
The National Assembly usually meets just twice a year for a week of committee and plenary meetings, though deputies remain engaged between sessions while working their normal jobs and can be relieved from work for assembly tasks.
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