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Cuba's new parliament could reveal Castro's political future
APTOPIX Cuba Election Heal
A man reads a ballot before voting during parliamentary elections in Havana, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008. Cubans went to the polls to elect the 614 members of their National Assembly with ailing President Fidel Castro as candidate. 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 that position. At right is a picture of revolutionary hero Che Guevara. - photo by Associated Press

HAVANA - The new parliament chosen by Cuban voters could ultimately send ailing 81-year-old Fidel Castro into permanent retirement.

As results came in Monday, there was no doubt that voters in Castro's home district had re-elected him to the National Assembly, where he must hold a seat to be eligible to stay on as chief of the island's governing body, the Council of State.

But it was less clear whether the assembly would choose Castro as council president when it convenes for the first time on Feb. 24, or whether the bearded revolutionary would step down after nearly 50 years at Cuba's helm.

Castro provisionally ceded power to his younger brother Raul in July 2006 following emergency intestinal surgeries, but remained head of the Council of State.

Cuban officials say they support his continuing in that role, but Castro has hinted at retirement without making his intentions clear.

In December, he wrote that he has no intention of clinging to power or standing in the way of a new generation of leaders. Last week, he said he was not well enough to speak to the voters in his district of Santiago.

"I do what I can: I write," he said, sounding frustrated in an essay published by official news media.

On Sunday, Castro voted as he convalesced at an undisclosed location, one of more than 8.2 million people casting ballots — more than 95 percent of registered voters, officials said Monday.

They were voting for 614 candidates, all of whom ran unopposed for the rubber-stamp parliament, and all of whom were elected, according to a preliminary tally released Monday.

Cuba maintains that its balloting is more democratic than that of other countries because the candidates are chosen by municipal leaders nominated at neighborhood gatherings. Critics say the elections do not provide an opportunity for Cubans to decide how and by whom they will be governed.

Casting his vote in Havana, Raul Castro announced the Feb. 24 opening session of the new National Assembly, but would not say whether his brother would stand for the presidency again or retire. He suggested Cuba is entering "a complex chapter, in which we have to face different situations and great decisions."

After nearly 18 months away from public view, a decision by Fidel Castro to retain his presidential post could derail what thus far has been a seamless transition of duties to Raul, the 76-year-old defense minister.

"The temporary transfer of power would, in effect, be annulled," Marifeli Perez-Stable of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, wrote in December.

"It'd be an embarrassment for Raul Castro and the others that they couldn't rein in the physically diminished Comandante," Perez-Stable wrote, using a title commonly used on the island to refer to Castro. "It would be an affront to ordinary Cubans to have this man — so ill he hasn't appeared live before them for 17 months — declared their president again."

Cubans appear to have adjusted well to Raul, so much so that they rarely talk about Fidel anymore, except to occasionally comment on his published essays.

Many hope that with a permanent role, Raul could promote a modest opening in the state-controlled economy, to provide breathing space to those stifled by rules that allow little opportunity to legally increase income in a country where government salaries average $17 a month.

"Handicapped and incapable of providing coherent leadership, the end of his historic reign is imminent," former U.S. intelligence officer Brian Latell said of Fidel Castro in an essay this month. "It seems all but certain that, voluntarily or not, he'll vacate the Cuban presidency early this year."

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