Will Fidel Castro Be Back?

Cuba's acting President Raul Castro casts his ballot, as a school boy looks on, 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 a 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.
AP Photo/Prensa Latina
This story was written by CBS News producer Portia Siegelbaum in Havana.
The results aren't in yet, but most Cubans agree; the most famous candidate in Sunday's parliamentary election - Fidel Castro - has won overwhelmingly.

If that is true, and there is little reason to doubt it, the Cuban leader sidelined by emergency intestinal surgery nearly 18 months ago is now eligible for election to the Council of State, which in turn elects the nation's president from among its members.

It's the biggest question in Cuba: Will Fidel Castro return - if not as before, at least in title? Or, will his younger brother, First Vice President Raul Castro, who "temporarily" assumed the presidency as provided for by the Cuban Constitution, officially fill the post?

Current parliamentary president, Ricardo Alarcon, who is also Cuba's point-man on U.S. relations, has repeatedly said the 81-year-old Castro will have his vote, but Sunday he couched his answer in more cautious terms.

"I hope that he will continue his recovery in the same successful way he's doing. And we should have no doubt that if he's ready, if he's in a position to continue performing that job, he will. The vast majority of Cubans will be more than happy, including myself," Alarcon told the press.

Although the government has treated the Cuban President's illness as a State secret, Castro himself has been brutally honest about his condition. In an essay published in the official Communist Party daily last week he confessed he was not in any condition to campaign in person in the electoral district where he was nominated as a candidate to parliament.

"I do what I can; I write. For me, this is a new experience. Writing is not the same as speaking. Today, now that I have more time to inform myself and to meditate about what I see, I have barely enough time to write," wrote Castro.

Popular musician Pachito Alonso says he'd like Castro for president "yesterday, today and tomorrow" but that "he's just a human being". Alonso believes the Cuban leader's long years of working through the night have taken a toll, on top of his illness. Still, he says "no matter what, he's an example for us."

Alonso, like other Cubans we talked to, combined support for Castro's Revolution with a critical look at the island's state of affairs.

"A lot of things need to be corrected," says Alonso, son of band leader Pacho Alonso. "For the country to move forward it has to have, first of all, a strong economy. We're a blockaded country (a reference to the U.S. economic and trade embargo against Cuba). We have a lot of difficulties, but we ourselves have to change many things to take the brakes off. There are things that can be done and haven't been done yet."

Like other voters, Alonso hopes the new 614-member parliament elected Sunday - all the candidates are running uncontested - will tackle these issues.

Alarcon points out that with Sunday's vote, two thirds of the lawmakers in parliament will be freshman. "I'm sure they will bring more ideas, more input, and that the parliament's work will constantly improve and respond more efficiently to the needs and aspirations of the Cuban people," he said.

The man who has been running the nation on a day-to-day basis, Raul Castro, 77, described the election as, "a very important step" in the midst of "a complex stage, a stage in which we have to confront different situations and big decisions, little by little."

He has repeatedly struck that note. Improvements and solutions, he has said, cannot come overnight. His plainspoken manner of addressing problems, the introduction of more efficient methods in food production and distribution, as well as higher payment for farmers, has many Cubans looking toward him optimistically.

That does not mean that all voters think it's time for Fidel Castro to totally relinquish power. Despite the fact that he has not made a single public appearance since falling ill, many "Fidelistas" hopefully repeat what the official media reports.

"I think our Commandante's health is very good. They said it on TV the other day," said Graudelia Montes de Orca, 48, who lives on worker's compensation payments. "I think he can continue representing us and at the same time Raul can be in the forefront... the two of them would be best."

No one knows yet what Cuba's leaders have in mind. Fidel Castro could be reelected for a term that would end in 2013 or he could decline the post and Raul Castro could be elected president, or one of the other top leaders, Vice President Carlos Lage, Alarcon, or Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque could move up.

The answer, however, won't come until February 24, when the new parliament sits for the first time to elect the Council of State.

In the meantime, election day came and went without a glimpse of the ailing or recovering president.

The parliamentary elections were held Sunday with the usual high turnout. Ninety-five percent of registered voters had cast ballots by 5 p.m., one hour before the polls closed.

In a message read on Cuban TV, Castro said that like other Cubans in his condition, unable to head for the polls, he was visited by a member of the election board from the polling station where he voted in years past, who took his ballot in a sealed envelope. A little while later it was opened in front of the cameras and deposited in a ballot box.

It was not the same as when Havana residents could watch him stride up to the polls, shake his hand and tell him directly what they were thinking.
By Portia Siegelbaum