HAVANA – Fidel Castro hasn't been seen in public for nearly 18 months and says he is too sick to campaign. But that hasn't stopped the 81-year-old from standing for re-election in parliamentary elections on Sunday.
Cubans lined up in blustery weather before dawn to cast their ballots in the vote — the latest step in a process that ultimately should shed light on Castro's political future.
"We continue to see him as guide, master, moral inspiration," said Amelia Alvarez, a 52-year-old school administrator. "He is very strong and will continue to be so: healthy, and recovering more every day."
Some 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, known as the National Assembly.
Castro, Cuba's unchallenged "Maximum Leader" since 1959, ceded power to his younger brother Raul in July 2006 following emergency intestinal surgeries and 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 that position.
Small white fliers were fastened on buildings around Old Havana urging a "United Vote" for all National Assembly candidates on the ballots. Other fliers announced "Cuba in Elections. Without Master or Impositions."
"We have a bit of wind and some rain will probably fall, but Cubans grab their umbrellas and get out to vote," said 70-year-old Consuelo Canziares, a neighborhood official who was among the first on her block at a school in Old Havana after polls opened at 7 a.m. local time. "This is important no matter the weather, the hour and other obligations."
Following the election, lawmakers have 45 days to choose among their colleagues for a new Council of State, meaning a decision on whether Castro will remain president or permanently retire could come by March.
Voters at district polling places overseen by schoolchildren were given a list of candidates — just one per post. They are strongly encouraged to check a single box supporting the full slate, although if they object to some candidates, they can mark individual boxes by names they support and leave others blank.
Candidates who don't get more than 50 percent of the vote lose, although National Assembly officials don't remember that happening since Cubans began voting for their parliament in 1993.
Cuba now elects a new parliament every five years, and while organized campaigning is forbidden, candidates are encouraged to interact with district voters and their resumes are posted at the polls. The Communist Party is the only party allowed.
Preliminary returns should be ready quickly on Sunday, as electoral officials use ham radios or even carrier pigeons to report results from isolated mountains and corners of the countryside after polls close.
Castro, who has been penning 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. But he also praised the example of a celebrated Brazilian architect who is still working at 100.
"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.
"I do what I can: I write," he added, seeming frustrated. "Writing is not the same as speaking."
The government says more than 95 percent of voters will participate in Sunday's vote, even though the U.S. government dismisses the process as a sham.
"These elections are not a break with past practice in Cuba and do not represent a real opportunity for the Cuban people to decide for themselves how they will be governed and who will govern them," Kurtis Cooper, a State Department spokesman, said in Washington on Friday.