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3,000 Cubans cast votes for unity

It was festive. It was patriotic. And it was a first for many of the Tampa Bay area's Cuban exile community as more than 3,000 people turned out to elect leaders from within their ranks.

Not only were some voting for the first time, but Saturday's election was the first time many in the Cuban community have spoken with one voice.

"This is something new for Cubans," said Sergio Foatanez of Puerto Rico, who was among 50 non-Cubans overseeing the election to ensure its legality. "They know how to talk, they know how to boycott, but to unify themselves? This is a first."

The five people elected, three representatives and two alternates, will represent the interests of Tampa Bay's Cuban exiles at the local and national level, and in Cuba should President Fidel Castro fall from power.

The newly elected potential representatives are: William Rodriguez, 1,976 votes; Roberto Pizaro, 294 votes; and Daniel Martinez, 211 votes.

The alternates are Vitalia Bequer, with 183 votes, and Roberto Jorge, 136 votes. Other candidates included Manny Rasco, who received 129 votes, and Alberto Mendez, 117 votes.

In addition to bringing the community together, organizers hope the election gives credibility to their concerns and sends a message to their homeland.

"It's almost over for Castro," said Diane Roseles, who fled Cuba 14 years ago. "If something happens in Cuba, we want to have a say. We have to be together at this moment."

Anyone from Cuba or with a parent born in Cuba was eligible to cast a ballot, which translated into about 80,000 potential voters. There were a total of 3,046 ballots cast at polling places in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, organizers said.

The election also had its opponents, who said that it would accomplish nothing and that the people elected would have no power. Most, though, agreed it was a beautiful concept.

"Even if some people don't want it, it plants a seed for other cities to follow," Foatanez said.

For Carrollwood resident Ida Harrell, it was a special day.

"My father came here when he was 7 months," Harrell said. "It will do a lot of good if the Cuban people can join together. This has been a cradle for Cuban people to live. The traditions have been kept alive."

_ Times correspondent Mike Mahan contributed to this report.