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 political system for nearly 60 years.
Over the rest of September, Cubans will meet in small groups to nominate municipal representatives, the first in a series of votes for local, provincial and, finally, national officials.
In the second electoral stage, a commission dominated by government-linked organizations will pick all the candidates for elections to provincial assemblies and Cuba's 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.
Cuban officials say 12,515 block-level districts will nominate candidates for city council elections to be held Oct. 22.
An opposition coalition says it expects 170 dissidents to seek nomination in the block-level meetings that began Monday. A few opposition candidates made it to that stage previously but were 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 votes 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.
At one session Monday evening, about 400 people gathered to choose their neighborhood's candidate, meeting in front of a house adorned with photos of the late Fidel Castro and Cuban flags. Choosing between their current delegate and a young challenger, they re-nominated physician Orlando Gutierrez. Both men were praised as "revolutionary" and "honest."
"We have to be here to defend our revolution and the social gains we have won," said one voter, Ivis Garcia, who works for a state-owned real estate enterprise.
Raul Castro, 86, became president in 2008 and launched a series of slow-moving and limited socio-economic reforms after his brother Fidel stepped down due to illness. Fidel Castro died last year at age 90.
Cuba's new president has long been expected to be First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 57-year-old career party official who 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, footage that was leaked to the public by an unknown culprit and widely distributed on thumb 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 footage. "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 itself to telegraph that Diaz-Canel will not accelerate the reform process started by Raul Castro, said Armando Chaguaceda, a Mexico-based Cuban political scientists.
"It could serve to send a signal of official intentions not to create any political opening, without being an official government statement," Chaguaceda said.