By Laura Gamba
BOGOTA, Colombia (AA) - Polls opened Sunday across Cuba for over 8 million voters to choose the National Assembly, the island country's highest legislative body, for a five-year term.
Over 23,600 polling stations opened their doors at 7 a.m. local time and are scheduled to close at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Some 175,600 students are in charge of guarding the ballot boxes.
There are 470 candidates running for the same number of seats, with no opposition candidates competing. Most of the candidates for the Cuban parliament are members of the Communist Party, the only legal party on the island.
Historical figures of the revolution, such as former President Raul Castro, 91, are among the candidates.
The lawmakers will be in charge of nominating a presidential candidate, who will be elected in a vote among themselves. Miguel Diaz-Canel, leader of the Communist Party of Cuba, is expected to win a second term.
Brian Nichols, the US undersecretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, on Friday criticized the elections in Cuba, saying that the Cuban people "deserve to choose" their representatives with freedom.
"On Sunday, Cubans will once again be denied a real election for their National Assembly," said Nichols on Twitter. "When the only option is the Communist Party and closed committees choose candidates to run without opposition, there is no democracy, only autocracy and misery. Cubans deserve to choose," he added.
Following Nichols’ criticism, on Saturday Cuban President Diaz-Canel lashed out against the US at the Ibero-American Summit in the Dominican Republic. Seeking the support of Ibero-American leaders, the president condemned the trade embargo and Washington's decision to keep the island on a list of countries sponsoring terrorism.
"The US government is determined to destabilize our country and destroy the Cuban revolution,” he said.
The vote comes at a time when Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with shortages of food, an unprecedented wave of migration, galloping inflation, and crippling US sanctions.
Non-voters have been a defining trait in recent elections, which, experts say, could undermine the legitimacy of Cuba’s next government. Turnout for municipal elections last November fell below 70% for the first time. The opposition has advocated abstention as a sign of rejection of the electoral system.