Raul Castro turned over Cuba's presidency Thursday to a 57-year-old successor he said would hold power until 2031, a plan that would place the state the Castro brothers founded and ruled for 60 years in the hands of a Communist Party official little known to most on the island.
Castro's 90-minute valedictory speech offered his first clear vision for the nation's future power structure under new President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez. Castro said he foresees the white-haired electronics engineer serving two five-year terms as leader of the Cuban government, and taking the helm of the Communist Party, the country's ultimate authority, when Castro leaves the powerful position in 2021.
In his own half-hour speech to the nation, Diaz-Canel pledged to preserve Cuba's communist system while gradually reforming the economy and making the government more responsive to the people.
After formally taking over from his older brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro launched a series of reforms that led to a rapid expansion of Cuba's private sector and burgeoning use of cellphones and the internet. Cuba today has a vibrant real estate market and one of the world's fastest-growing airports. Tourism numbers have more than doubled since Castro and President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations in 2015, making Cuba a destination for nearly 5 million visitors a year, despite a plunge in relations under the Trump administration.
Castro's moves to open the economy even further have largely been frozen or reversed as soon as they began to generate conspicuous displays of wealth by the new entrepreneurial class in a country officially dedicated to equality among its citizens. Foreign investment remains anemic and the island's infrastructure is falling deeper into disrepair. The election of President Donald Trump dashed dreams of detente with the U.S., and after two decades of getting Venezuelan subsidies totaling more than $6 billion a year, Cuba's patron has collapsed economically, with no replacement in the wings.
Cuban state media said Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Diaz-Canel and thanked Castro for the many years of cooperation between the two countries, while Chinese President Xi Jinping also reaffirmed his country's friendship with Cuba and expressed interest in deeper ties.
At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed disappointment at the handover, saying Cuban citizens "had no real power to affect the outcome" of what she called the "undemocratic transition" that brought Diaz-Canal to the presidency.
Vice President Mike Pence tweeted at Castro that the U.S. won't rest until Cuba "has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free!"
Diaz-Canel said his government would be willing to talk with the United States but rejected all demands for changes in the Cuban system.
Diaz-Canel first gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. People there describe him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice presidency.
As in Cuba's legislative elections, all of the leaders selected Wednesday were picked by a government-appointed commission. Ballots offered only the option of approval or disapproval and candidates generally receive more than 95 percent of the votes in their favor. Diaz-Canel was approved by 604 votes in the 605-member assembly. It was unclear if he had abstained or someone else had declined to endorse him.
The assembly also approved another six vice presidents of the Council of State, Cuba's highest government body. Only one, 85-year-old Ramiro Valdes, was among the revolutionaries who fought with the Castros in the late 1950s in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.