Castro may be replaced in nationwide election

HAVANA – Cubans opened an election cycle yesterday that will lead to a decision next year on whether ailing leader Fidel Castro will remain atop the communist-run island’s supreme governing body.

The nationwide municipal voting marked the start of a multitiered process that culminates with parliamentary elections next spring. Lawmakers could then decide to officially replace Castro, 81, with his younger brother Raul as head of the 31-member Council of State.

The elder Castro has been the island’s unchallenged leader since his revolution toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. But he has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgeries and ceding power to a provisional government headed by his brother in July 2006.

Some 37,258 candidates were vying for 15,236 positions on municipal assemblies nationwide and official media has said turnout of over 95 percent of the island’s 8.3 million eligible voters is expected.

“If my commandant recovers his health, we will want him [as president] forever. There’s no one like him,” said voter Gladys Veitia, tears welling in her eyes.

Fidel Castro has looked lucid in recent state videos, but also frail and in little condition to return to power. Cuban television reported he cast his ballot around midday without leaving the undisclosed location where he has been recovering for nearly 15 months.

In a statement read on official television during a subsequent national newscast, Castro did not mention the elections, but referred to news from Washington that, in coming days, President Bush planned to announce initiatives aimed at fostering democratic transition in Cuba.