Will Fidel Castro step down next month?

Cubans voted for 614 candidates running unopposed in Sunday's parliamentary poll.

Election: Cuba's acting president Raúl Castro cast his ballot in Sunday's parliamentary election as a school boy looked on.

There's no doubt that Fidel Castro will be reelected following parliamentary elections held Sunday in Cuba, but this latest chapter in the future of the island nation – an uncertain saga since the Communist revolutionary fell ill in July 2006 – does little to clarify the ultimate outcome.

His election to the National Assembly – which, like that of the other 613 candidates running unopposed, is a foregone conclusion – would put him in position to later be named to head the Council of State, Cuba's governing body. But many observers say that Mr. Castro, who has ruled Cuba since 1959, could officially step down as its head as early as next month, when the new assembly convenes.

On Sunday, Fidel's brother Raúl Castro, who has been acting as Cuba's interim president for nearly 18 months, said that the new assembly would choose its leader Feb. 24. For the first time in five decades, the position could go to someone other than Fidel Castro. In December, Castro stated that he had no intention to "cling to power" and last week said he was too weak to speak to the electorate directly.

"This suggests to me that he may be foreshadowing a decision that he is not going to stand for reelection," says William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington. "He has spent more than a decade putting into place the succession machinery, grooming younger people, promoting them, setting up a mechanism for continuity for revolution after he is gone. In July '06 he got the unusual opportunity to see if that machinery works. … The smart thing to do is let the machinery run the country, rather than to resume old responsibilities and hope that in two or three or five years when he dies that it will work."

Castro temporarily handed over power to his brother after undergoing intestinal surgery for an undisclosed illness and has not been seen in public for nearly 18 months. His progress is uncertain. He has appeared in videos with visitors such as economic and political ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. His brother has claimed he is recuperating heartily. On a visit last week Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said, "Fidel is ready to play the political role he has in Cuba and in the globalized world."

High-level Cuban officials have reiterated that sentiment. National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón says he will vote for Castro as head of the Council of State. "You should have no doubt that he's ready," Mr. Alarcon said recently. "He is in a position to continue that job, and the vast majority of Cuba will be more than happy, myself included."

After Mr. Lula da Silva's visit, many observers focused on his statements underscoring Castro's lucidity and strength, says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert and vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. But he says that misses a larger point. "He didn't say he is ready to return to office. He said he is ready to resume a political role in Cuba....It seems to add up to Castro in an advisory capacity."

In fact the future remains clouded by uncertainty, even from signals coming from Castro himself. At the end of last year he said in a letter he had no intention of clinging to power or obstructing the rise of a younger generation of leaders.

Last week he said that he was not strong enough to address voters. "I am not physically able to speak directly to the citizens of the municipality where I was nominated for our elections,'' he wrote. "I do what I can: I write."

Some 8.4 million eligible voters were asked to select 614 candidates, all uncontested, for seats in the National Assembly. But the election has been overshadowed by questions of transition in Cuba. "We are electing a new parliament at a complicated time when we have to face different situations and big decisions, bit by bit," Raúl Castro said Sunday.

Even if Raúl Castro, or a younger leader such as Vice President Carlos Lage, takes over the helm, many expect continuity in Cuba as long as Fidel Castro is alive. "If he definitively retires from being the leader of the revolution, that will be a watershed moment, but it won't make a huge difference in policy," says Mr. LeoGrande. "As long as he is active, he is going to have veto power over any major changes."

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