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Bay area's Cuban exiles cast ballots for a united leadership

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

"This is something new for Cubans," said Sergio Foatanez of Puerto Rico, who was among 50 non-Cubans overseeing Saturday's 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 claim to 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.

Votes were tabulated late Saturday, but final results were not available.

"Some people haven't seen their families for a long time," said Maria Cristina Zota of Colombia, another election observer. "Some people say this is the first time they've voted. It's incredible."

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.

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

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

But 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."