Havana (AFP) – Cuba marked the end of an era Thursday as Miguel Diaz-Canel was formally elected as the country’s new president, becoming the first leader of the Caribbean island in six decades who is not named Castro.
The silver-haired Diaz-Canel — a top Communist Party figure who has served as first vice president since 2013 — assumes power from Raul Castro, who himself took over from his elder brother Fidel, father of the 1959 revolution.
In his first speech as president, Diaz-Canel vowed to keep the country on the path of that “revolution,” but also on the road to economic reform.
“The mandate given by the people to this legislature is to continue the Cuban revolution at this crucial historic moment, which will be marked by what we must do to implement the economic model” put in place by Raul Castro, he said.
“I am here to work, not to make promises,” he said.
Diaz-Canel was elected in a landmark vote of the National Assembly which took place on Wednesday — he was the sole candidate for the presidency — with the result formally announced on Thursday.
He is the island’s first leader born after the revolution, and will be 58 on Friday.
Among the first world leaders to congratulate the new leader were China’s President Xi Jinping and President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, a close ally of Cuba, described the new leader as a “faithful representative of a brilliant generation.”
Applause, and Fidel’s empty seat
The National Assembly erupted into applause as the result was read out, with many of the delegates smiling, and shaking hands warmly with Castro and Diaz-Canel.
Diaz-Canel’s new right-hand man, his First Vice President, will be 72-year-old Salvador Valdes Mesa, a former union leader.
As Diaz-Canel walked to the front of the chamber, he high-fived the front row of delegates and embraced Castro as he took the stage, images broadcast on state television showed.
Then the 86-year-old Castro raised his successor’s left arm in the air in victory, prompting another wave of applause from the delegates — some of whom were in civilian attire, while others wore military fatigues.
It was a historic, though understated, handover.
As Castro got up from the seat he has occupied for the past 12 years, it was immediately taken by Diaz-Canel, a man nearly 30 years his junior who has spent years climbing the party ranks.
Next to him was the empty seat once occupied by Fidel, who died in 2016.
Between them, the Castro brothers made the island of more than 11 million people a key player in the Cold War and helped keep communism afloat despite the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Raul has been in power since 2006, when he took over after illness sidelined Fidel.
Thursday’s much-anticipated transfer of power took place on the anniversary of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when Fidel’s forces defeated 1,400 US-backed rebels seeking to overthrow him.
Havana has long hailed the showdown as American imperialism’s first great defeat in Latin America.
In Raul’s footsteps
Diaz-Canel, who some say bears a passing resemblance to American actor Richard Gere, is a fan of The Beatles whose penchant for wearing jeans has set him apart in Havana’s corridors of power.
Although he has advocated fewer restrictions on the press and a greater openness to the internet, he also has a ruthless streak, with harsh words for Cuba’s dissidents and the United States.
In his speech to the Assembly, the former engineer said he would press for increased use of technology as the country seeks to modernize its infrastructure.
Crucially, he will remain under the watchful eye of Castro, who confirmed on Thursday that he will continue to serve as the head of Cuba’s all-powerful Communist Party until its next congress in 2021.
“My second and final mandate (as party head) will expire in 2021,” Castro told delegates at the Assembly.
“From then on, I will be a soldier alongside the people, defending the revolution.”
Diaz-Canel said in his own speech that Castro “will still preside over decisions of major importance for the present and future of the nation.”
‘He comes from the system’
The new leader will be tasked with pursuing reforms begun by Castro to open up Cuba’s economy to small private entrepreneurs and reach a rapprochement with its Cold War arch-enemy, the United States.
In 2015, Havana and Washington renewed diplomatic ties, with then president Barack Obama making a historic visit to the island a year later.
But, steps towards a normalization of ties have slowed since Donald Trump arrived in the White House last year.
Diaz-Canel inherits a youthful population hungry for change.
But Cuba watchers and domestic analysts say he will favor continuity over change in the early days of his presidency — and could hit some stumbling blocks along the way.
“He comes from the system, but it is the rigidity of the system which is the biggest obstacle to pushing forward with the necessary political and economic changes,” said Michael Shifter, head of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.
“It will be a test of his political ability,” he added. “And he could encounter resistance.”