Activists question voter turnout data amid allegations of irregularities in Cuba’s parliamentary elections

Cuban electoral authorities reported a higher-than-expected participation rate in the parliamentary elections on Sunday, contrasting images published on social media and reports by Cuban independent media outlets and civil society organizations suggesting a low voter turnout following a boycott campaign by several opposition groups.

According to preliminary numbers provided Monday by the island’s National Electoral Council, 76% of the eligible 8,120,072 voters cast a ballot, a number that diverges from a decreasing trend in voter turnout in recent years.

Still, it is the lowest participation rate in an election for the National Assembly members, which has taken place every five years since 1976. In 2018, that number was 86%.

Of those who voted Sunday, 10 percent annulled the ballots or left them blank, authorities said.

Several civil society and dissident groups dispute the data released Monday by the Cuban electoral authorities, which cannot be verified independently because Cuba does not allow independent elections observation.

Three small Cuban independent groups monitoring the elections — Observadores de Derechos Electorales, Comisión Cubana de Defensa Electoral and Ciudadanos Observadores de Procesos Electorales — issued a statement reporting several irregularities, including not publishing the voter rolls in time, allowing unregistered voters to cast a ballot, excluding eligible voters from the electoral list, and coercing citizens into voting by sending volunteers to their homes carrying the ballots.

Cubalex, an organization that provides legal aid to critics of the government, said several independent journalists, dissidents and activists were detained or kept under surveillance on Sunday.

The independent group monitoring the election, as well as Cuban independent media outlets like 14ymedio, noted that many precincts in Havana and other provinces seemed empty at different times of the day. Some Cubans published photos on social media showing no long lines outside some polling stations.

Cuban electoral authorities kept precincts open an hour after they were supposed to close at 6 p.m. without citing major disruptions as established in the electoral law.

The election occurred amid the worst economic crisis and the largest migration of Cubans to the United States in recent history. There are more than a thousand political prisoners as the government faces increased political opposition, prompting mass protests in 2021.

For months, members of the opposition and government critics have been urging the population not to vote in elections they said are fraudulent and provide Cubans with little choice.

There’s no direct vote for the president, the vice president or other top leadership positions in Cuba. Still, they all need to be elected members of the National Assembly first, which is why the government spends considerable time and resources promoting the official candidates.

Cubans cannot decide on different candidates for the same National Assembly seat nor select candidates from various parties. They can only vote yes or no on a list of candidates chosen by commissions made up of representatives of political organizations and municipal government assemblies.

There is only one candidate for each seat, and most are members of the government, the Cuban armed and security forces, the Communist Party, other political organizations and state companies.

Among the candidates were Cuba’s handpicked president and Communist Party Secretary Miguel Díaz-Canel, and several members of the initial group that came to power in 1959, including the country’s top leader and former president Raúl Castro, 91; vice prime minister Ramiro Valdés, 90; José Ramón Machado Ventura, second in command of the Communist Party, 92; and revolution Comandante Guillermo García Frías, 95.

The island’s citizens also can only vote for the candidates proposed for the area where they live, so out of the current 470 seats, an average voter can only vote yes or no for two or three candidates for the National Assembly. That means most Cubans do not have a say on whether Castro or Díaz-Canel keep their seats.

Many Cubans show little interest in selecting the members of the National Assembly, as the parliament mostly rubber stamps the decisions taken by the Communist Party and other government bodies.

Since the system leaves little room for surprises, the 470 nominated candidates got elected Sunday.

Among those entering the National Assembly for the first time was Elián Gonzalez, 29, who as a boy was at the center of an international custody dispute and a political battle between Cuban exiles in Miami, Fidel Castro in Cuba and the Clinton administration.

Díaz-Canel called the Sunday elections “a true display of civility, popular participation and socialist democracy.” He dismissed criticism of the process by the U.S. Embassy in Havana and U.S. officials, telling reporters Sunday that “the disrespectful opinions of the United States government slide off our back.”

On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Havana called the election “anti-democratic.”

“Elections without a choice — like this weekend’s national assembly elections in Cuba — are antidemocratic,” the U.S. Embassy in Havana tweeted Monday. “The Cuban people deserve real choices in real elections that feature candidates from more than a single political party and beyond the Communist Party.”