Havana : Cuba | Feb 23, 2010 at 11:11 AM PST
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Silvio Benitez (center) with members of Cuban Liberal Party

For the first time in the history of the Cuban revolution, a group of dissidents, pacifists and political opponents of the government are trying to change the socialist system working within its own election laws.

A novel tactic, the “Candidates for Change” [www.candidatosporelcambio.wordpress.com] platform, is a national call for citizens to nominate unofficial candidates for the upcoming midterm elections on April 25. This would be a significant departure from the last half-century when all candidates have been Communist Party-approved, with ultimately just one candidate for each open position.

The nomination of candidates in every community starts tomorrow, Feb. 24. Candidates are selected by show of hands in open assemblies and the possible emergence of candidates not sympathetic to the revolutionary government could spark great tension in the process.

Silvio Benítez, the leader of “Candidates for Change,” has been working on this effort with non-legalized political parties, civil society organizations, and independent citizens since October 2009. Rather than a single opposition or party platform, participants consider the effort, according to Benítez, “A training for democracy… an exercise in responsible citizenship… to promote changes in society and end the stagnation in which the political life of the nation is mired.”

So far, the effort appears to be working. More than 30 citizens are willing to be nominated and voted on, with people in about half of Cuba’s provinces participating. The majority live in Havana and range in age from 16 to 67.

Those who have made their intentions known, however, have already started to suffer what Benítez calls “the 22 acts of a repressive spiral.” Those include, “harassment, persecution, arbitrary acts, abuse of power, interviews, citations, arrests, kidnappings, and threats of siege” on the part of state security.

“It is a pattern of preventative hostility,” he added. “Intimidate, coerce, break down defenses, and weaken the individual in front of his family and neighbors.” So far, no one has been sentenced to prison.

Benítez has called on “all the opposition organizations and those of Cuban civil society, as well as any citizen worried about the fate of the nation, to participate in the election of district delegates… to end the false unanimity in the nearly 15,000 voting districts that exist in the country.”

In past elections, opponents of the regime have encouraged people to resist by abstaining. But that type of resistance has done nothing to transform the Cuban reality. In proposing to work within the electoral laws, Candidates for Change nominees risk being seen as “collaborators” with the regime -- a risk they are willing to take.

If any alternative candidates are elected delegates, they intend to focus on the most critical issues of community life, such as difficulties with transportation, health, education and culture.

“What is most important,” Benítez said, “is to create a serious and reasonable discourse, without exceeding the limits the regime can tolerate.”

Only later, and in a way that is “evolutionary and not abrupt,” he adds, Candidates for Change would advocate for major changes such as the abolition of migration restrictions and freedom for political prisoners.

“But even if none of the aspirants receive a simple majority of votes, at least they will start to open up a civic consciousness, and the effort will send a message that it is possible to seek peaceful changes in Cuba even in the midst of total closure,” he said.

To be a candidate, in principle it is enough to comply with Cuban elections law: be at least 16 and live in the appropriate district.

The president of the National Elections Committee, Ana María Mari Machado, told the international press at the end of January that no citizen who meets those requirements will be excluded from the elections.

The neighborhood assemblies begin tomorrow. Win or lose, the effort is without precedent in a half century of revolution.

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Silvio Benitez (left margin) with Cuban Liberal Party members
Sivio Benitez and members of the Republic of Cuba Liberal Party at their home in Punta Brava, Havana province
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo is based in Havana, Ciudad de la Habana, Cuba, and is a Stringer on Allvoices.
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