Cuba on Monday began a five-month political transition expected to end with Raul Castro's departure from the presidency, capping his family's near-total dominance of the country's political system for nearly 60 years.
Over the rest of this month, Cubans will meet in small groups to nominate municipal representatives, the first in a series of votes for local, provincial and, finally, national officials. Cuban officials say 12,515 block-level districts will nominate candidates for city council elections Oct. 22.
An opposition coalition says it expects 170 dissidents to seek nomination in the block-level meetings. A few opposition candidates have made it to that stage in previous elections but been defeated.
The government does not allow the participation of parties other than the ruling Communist Party and has worked to quash the election of individual opposition candidates, leading critics to call the elections an empty exercise meant to create the appearance of democratic participation.
Cuban officials say dissidents are paid by foreign governments and exile groups as part of a plan to overthrow the island's socialist system and reinstall the capitalism and U.S. dominance ended by the country's 1959 revolution.
In the second electoral stage, a commission dominated by government-linked organizations will pick all the candidates for elections to provincial assemblies and the National Assembly.
The National Assembly is expected to pick the president and members of the powerful Council of State by February. Castro has said he will leave the presidency by that date, but he is expected to remain head of the Communist Party, giving him power that may be equal to or greater than the new president's.
Castro, 86, became president in 2008 and launched a series of slow-moving and limited socioeconomic reforms after his brother Fidel stepped down because of illness. Fidel Castro died last year at age 90.
First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel has long been expected to be the next president. The 57-year-old career party official has maintained a low public profile in recent years.
Many Cubans' greatest exposure to Diaz-Canel this year has been through an unusual video of the vice president speaking at a private Communist Party event, which was leaked to the public by an unknown culprit and widely distributed on flash drives and online.
In the video, Diaz-Canel discusses plans for crackdowns on independent media, entrepreneurs and opposition groups trying to win municipal positions.
"We're taking all possible steps to discredit that," he says in the video. "We're involved in this whole process."
The workings of the Cuban government are highly opaque and the public only rarely hears from high-ranking officials, with the exception of a few annual speeches and edited selections of talks at twice-a-year sessions of congress and similarly infrequent party meetings. In addition, the government maintains tight control of the media and Internet use in the country and leaks of high-level meetings and speeches are highly unusual.
The Diaz-Canel video may have been leaked by the government to telegraph that he will not accelerate the reform process started by Raul Castro, said Armando Chaguaceda, a Mexico-based Cuban political scientist.