Miguel Díaz-Canel was officially named as the new leader of Cuba on Thursday, one day after a secret vote in the country’s National Assembly.
It’s the first time in nearly six decades that Cuba is being led by a man not named Castro.
Díaz-Canel, 57, was selected by a vote of 603-1 as the unopposed candidate to replace Raul Castro, 86. Castro embraced Díaz-Canel – who wasn’t yet born when Fidel Castro led his revolution in 1959 – during Wednesday’s session, all but sealing his status as the island’s next president.
Díaz-Canel becomes president of the Cuban Council of State and Council of Ministers. The other members of the Council of State also were named Thursday. The makeup of the Council of Ministers will be decided at the next National Assembly, Díaz-Canel said, most likely later this year.
Despite his new title, Díaz-Canel emphasized the continuing leadership role that Raul Castro will play for the country.
“Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, will lead the decisions of greatest transcendence for the present and the future of this country,” Díaz-Canel said in a speech to the Cuban National Assembly in Havana on Thursday.
Castro will also still be a member of the National Assembly and, even if he is no longer president, remains the most powerful public figure on the island.
Still, Castro made clear Díaz-Canel will ultimately succeed him as head of the Communist Party when he steps down form that post in 2021.
“He will stay on as first secretary,” Castro said, “to keep the road open.”
Rather than split up power between other top officials, Castro said control of the state would eventually be consolidated in Díaz-Canel – as it was in the Castros – at least for a while.
Castro said Cuban presidents should be restricted to two five-year terms, a novel idea in a country where his brother Fidel ruled for 50 years.
But Castro’s ringing endorsement of Díaz-Canel was a clear indication that members of the older generation that fought the revolution are banking on him to steer the government through an economic crisis and increasingly rocky relationship with the United States.
The transition marks a passing of a torch in Cuba from the revolutionaries who took power at the point of a gun to the younger generation of bureaucrats that have only ever known the Castros’ socialist project.
Even though he has advocated for a greater opening to the internet and is said to seek consensus for various factions within Cuban society, Díaz-Canel echoed hardline revolutionary stalwarts in his remarks Thursday.
“No one will weaken the revolution or defeat the Cuban people,” Díaz-Canel said. “Cuba doesn’t make concessions against its sovereignty or independence.”
A steady rise to power
An electrical engineer by training, Díaz-Canel was born a year after Fidel Castro took power. Tall and gray-haired, he speaks in a soft monotone and rarely strays too far from the script in public appearances.
But while there were other, more dynamic members of his generation who years earlier appeared to have a better lock on the top job, Díaz-Canel quietly made a name for himself as an efficient administrator while serving as the top Communist Party official for the provinces of Villa Clara and then Holguín, where Fidel and Raul Castro were born.
Díaz-Canel will be put to the test as he tries to right Cuba’s flagging economy and fend off an increasingly aggressive administration in Washington.
During his 90-minute speech Thursday, Raul Castro referred to the recent tensions, criticizing Vice President Mike Pence for walking out of a speech by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla during the Summit of the Americas in Peru.
“He couldn’t take it and left,” Castro joked.
Pence fired back on Twitter at Castro.
“Hey Raul - looks like you’re the one leaving…” read a Tweet on Pence’s official account. “We’re here standing with the Cuban people. And we’re not going anywhere until Cuba has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free! “
CNN’s Patrick Oppmann reported and wrote from Havana, with Alanne Orjoux writing in Atlanta. CNN’s Jonny Hallam also contributed to this report.