This week could be momentous for Cuba's political future.
A list of candidates will be published on Sunday for elections to the
country's National Assembly and provincial legislatures, which are
scheduled for January 20. Deputies elected in this poll will choose the
Council of State by next March, which will be tasked with choosing the
head of state and government. In order for President Fidel Castro -- who
yielded power to his brother, Raul, in July 2006 to undergo gastric
surgery -- to be re-elected to these roles, he will have to be a
candidate in January. If he is not named as a candidate, Raul will be
Since taking office, Raul has shown signs of wanting to move Cuba
towards a more collective style of leadership, with greater
accountability for officials at all levels. He has also suggested --
most notably in a key speech this July -- that he favours some economic
liberalisation. However, his elder brother continues to cast a shadow,
limiting any fundamental shift in the balance of power, much less real
* Fidel failed to endorse Raul's pro-reform address, and his
government has not put forward any concrete changes.
* Raul's official call for debate has been taken up half-heartedly
in the official press and other institutions.
While the Cuban political system has shown itself able to function
perfectly well in Fidel's absence, there have been growing signs of unease:
* Party and work-place meetings have voiced dissatisfaction with
salaries, obstacles for legal micro-businesses, state tutelage over
agrarian cooperatives, foreigner-only areas, and -- most worryingly for
the government -- deficiencies in the health and education systems, its
* Emigration is resurging, particularly through Mexico to the
In this context, dissident leader, Osvaldo Paya has announced the
formation of 'committees of dialogue', which will aim to facilitate
public discussion on legal mechanisms to effect political change:
* Paya in the past has been a particularly effective opponent of
* While this initiative is unlikely to produce concrete changes in
the short term, its timing could add to any discomfort the electoral
process produces for the government.
Ultimately, whatever the condition of Fidel's health, and irrespective
of whether he is formally 're-elected', the prestige and legitimacy he
lends to the government means there are limited prospects for real
change for as long he survives.
The other key driver of more fundamental change may be the election of a
new US administration next year, which may make a meaningful, if
gradual, attempt to engage with Havana. Growing discontent in the US
business community with the long-standing embargo, combined with
recognition of the need at least to try to influence the post-Fidel
transition, make this fairly likely, irrespective of whether the next
president is Republican or Democrat.