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Cubans vote to decide Castro's future

Voting began throughout the communist-ruled island on Sunday, according to election officials.

world Updated: Jan 20, 2008 20:45 IST

More than eight million Cubans on Sunday began casting votes for a new National Assembly, which will choose the country's president amid doubts about whether ailing Fidel Castro will retake the reins of the only communist government in the Americas.

Voting began throughout the communist-ruled island on Sunday, according to election officials. Castro, who has been sidelined from power for nearly 18 months following major intestinal surgery, is among 614 uncontested candidates for the legislature, which will name 31 lawmakers to the Council of State led by the president.

The election is free of surprises and choices, but the new assembly will be closely watched. By March 5 it will name a new president amid widespread speculation over whether the assembly will pick someone else other than Fidel Castro for the first time in almost five decades.

The 81-year-old leader's future has been a question mark since he handed power to his brother and defence chief Raul, 76, on July 31, 2006, officially on an temporary basis while he recovers from surgery.

The communist leader, who took power in 1959, has given contradictory signals about his plans for the future. In December, he announced for the first time that he would not "cling to power" or obstruct the rise of a new generation of leaders.

Fidel, who has cherished delivering long speeches to huge crowds, has never appeared in public since announcing his surgery, instead appearing in videos or still pictures.

Last Wednesday, Castro appeared thin but lucid in his first video shown in three months, which was broadcast on Cuba's state television. "I have felt quite well," Castro is shown telling Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva.