Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro is up for re-election to parliament, along with dozens of other politicians, in voting that opens Sunday. VOA's Brian Wagner reports the vote is again focusing attention on Mr. Castro's health problems and economic concerns on the island.
Fidel Castro was last seen in public in July 2006, shortly before undergoing intestinal surgery that he says left him in very weak health. Mr. Castro said he has recovered some strength in recent months, but this week he said he is still not strong enough to campaign for re-election as delegate for the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. He must be re-elected to the assembly in order to be eligible for the nation's top ruling body, the Council of State, and the presidency.
Phil Peters, Cuba expert for the Lexington Institute near Washington, says he expects no real surprises in the outcome of the legislative voting. But he says the selection of the Council of State, several weeks later, is less certain.
"The key issue that will be decided in this is whether Fidel Castro will remain the head of state even though he has not been in public view now for [nearly] 18 months," he said.
Peters says officials could use the process to formally hand the presidency to Raul Castro, who has been serving as provisional leader since his brother fell ill. In that case, he says the 81-year-old leader could assume another position in the government, while maintaining some influence over policy.
Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, says political changes matter little to Cubans on the island. He says the key issue for many is expanding the economy.
"They are less concerned about what political system in Cuba is going to be after Fidel is gone, and more concerned about what the future holds for them in what the next Cuban leader will give them in terms of improving their living conditions," he noted.
Cuba's economy has enjoyed above average growth in recent years, partly thanks to a recent deal to swap Venezuelan oil for Cuban medical care and other services.
Paolo Spadoni, a professor at Rollins College in Florida, says the growth comes despite a housing shortage and transportation crisis caused by decades of weak investment. He also says economic inequality is on the rise.
"The problem and this is the second issue is that some of that growth or most of that growth has not been translated into tangible benefits for the Cuban population," he explained.
Spadoni says many Cubans have embraced a recent call from Raul Castro for an open debate about ways to boost the economy and improve conditions for residents. Some proposals include easing restrictions on private enterprise, especially the island's key industry of farming.
Phil Peters says possible reforms could give Cubans more control over their economic decisions and reduce the government's role in several industries.
"All of them [reforms] would improve the economy," he added. "And, of course, I'm talking about changes that could be made without abandoning the fundamental socialist character of the system."
Peters says it is difficult to tell if the economic debate sparked by Raul Castro will influence the electoral process in Cuba, where many campaign activities are restricted. But he says there is consensus among many sectors of Cuban society that an open discussion is needed to address the problems.
Paolo Spadoni says the popularity of the economic debate shows that a political change has already taken place.
"The debate and everything that has happened in Cuba looks like Raul is the one right now who is ruling the country," he said. "And he will probably continue doing that."
In a letter released last month, Fidel Castro said he will not seek to remain in power or block younger people from taking control. The upcoming electoral process will demonstrate whether the island is ready for that change.