Cubans vote as Castro remains ill

Elections for new council of state come amid questions over Fidel Castro's future.

    A group of ladies turn a room into a polling station in Havana for the election [AFP]

    About 8.4 million voters are being asked to back Castro and 613 other top Communists, career politicians, musicians and athletes for posts in the island's rubber-stamp legislature on Sunday, known as the national assembly.

     

    Undisclosed illness

     

    Castro, Cuba's unchallenged "Maximum Leader" since 1959, ceded power to his younger brother Raul in July 2006, following emergency intestinal surgery.

     

    He is still recovering from an undisclosed illness at a secret location.

     

    Although he no longer runs the government, Castro still heads its supreme governing body, the council of state, and his re-election to parliament is necessary to retain the position.

     

    Following the vote, MPs have 45 days to choose among their colleagues for a new council, meaning a decision on whether Castro will remain president or permanently retire could come by March.

     

    Castro, who has been writing essays on a wide array of topics for publication in state newspapers, in December wrote that he has no intention of clinging to power or standing in the way of a new generation of leaders.

     

    "I am not physically able to speak directly to the citizens of the municipality where I was nominated for our elections," he wrote on Wednesday.

     

    Castro is guaranteed a seat in the assembly, though he may never return as president.

     

    Change

     

    Al Jazeera's Mariana Sanchez said his influence will still loom large.

     

    She said: "If you ask Cubans ... what has changed since Fidel Castro temporarily handed power to his younger brother Raul, the answer is not much.

     

    "It's a struggle for me to make enough to live."

     

    But some Cubans say they do see a difference in how 75-year-old Raul Castro is leading the country.

     

    The acting president is encouraging Cubans to openly criticise shortcomings of how the government manages the country.

     

    Independent journalist Carlos Maceira says the effects of this new openness are positive…but it's not enough.

     

    “There are heated debates but this is part of a government scheme, because there is still repression. At least people are no longer afraid to talk publicly.” He said.

     

     There are other signs of change too. Government officials have begun to criticise and discuss ways to improve health and education on Cuba’s most influential TV programme Mesa Redonda.

     

    Raul Castro has also eased some basic restrictions. It is now easier to import car parts and DVD's … and farmers are being given more land to produce food.

     

    But what has not changed is the economic and political structure that has shaped this communist country for decades. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and Agencies


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