Cuban president Raul Castro has been re-elected to what he vowed would be his last term in office, and unveiled a political heir tasked with securing the future of communism in the country after 2018.
“This will be my last term,” 81-year-old Mr Castro told lawmakers after the National Assembly re-elected him and named a new regime number two, 52-year-old Council of State vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel.
Mr Castro said he was “elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism – not to destroy it”, adding that his economic reforms will create “a less egalitarian society, but a fairer one”.
Choosing Mr Diaz-Canel, a former military man and professor from Villa Clara who has represented the president on foreign trips in recent months, “marks a final step in configuring the country’s future leadership, through the slow and orderly transfer of the main leadership positions to new generations”, Mr Castro said.
The changes are in line with a decision adopted by the Communist Party last year to limit the terms of top office holders to 10 years.
Mr Castro will reach this limit on February 24, 2018.
He became Cuba’s interim president when Fidel Castro became too ill in 2006. He formally became president in 2008.
Through the Cold War and now for more than two decades after it, the United States has tried to isolate Cuba to press for democratic change.
In 1962, it imposed a full trade embargo on Havana – the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas – to pressure the communist island to open up democratically and economically.
Cuba finally appears poised to have lined up new leadership, provided it can continue to prop up its dysfunctional economy while keeping the regime afloat.
PHOTO: Leader in waiting: Miguel Diaz-Canel. (AFP: Adalberto Roque)
Cuba is dependent on aid from oil-rich Venezuela and so far has failed to discover reserves of its own, although some experts say there are untapped stores of crude off its Gulf of Mexico coast.
The fate and future of the Cuban regime also depends on the health of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s main economic supporter and political ally, who is recovering from cancer surgery.
There is no guarantee a successor would feed Cuba’s economy as much as Mr Chavez.
Mr Diaz-Canel, who turns 53 in April, is an electrical engineer by training and a former education minister.
Since March, he has been one of the eight vice presidents on the Council of Ministers.
He took the number two spot from Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 82, who relinquished the post but remains one of Cuba’s vice presidents.
Mr Diaz-Canel, as political heir, cuts a starkly different profile from the revolutionary leadership, whose members are mostly in their 80s.
If he comes to lead Cuba, he would be the first leader of the regime whose entire life has been under the Castro regime that started in January 1959.