Raul Castro has announced he will step down in 2018, heralding the end of the Castro era after almost 60 years, as he named a probable successor not born at the time of the Cuban revolution.
Cuba's president named 52-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, a rising star from a new generation within the Communist Party, as his most senior vice-president, paving the way for him to step in as the natural successor.
"This will be my last term," said Castro, 81, in a surprise move after being elected to a second five-year term of office by the national assembly. Castro, who formally assumed the presidency from his ailing elder brother Fidel in 2008, also hinted at constitutional change that would limit future rulers.
He said that he hoped to establish a two-term limit for future presidents and age-caps for holding political office - radical changes in a one-party regime that has been run by first one Castro and then his brother since the 1959 revolution ousted the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
In a 35-minute speech to parliament late on Sunday, Castro said Cuba was at a moment of "historic transcendence" and that the time had come to "orderly transfer key roles to new generations". Diaz-Canel's promotion means he could step into the role of president if Castro were unable to finish his term in office. An electrical engineer and former minister of higher education, Diaz-Canel has risen through the ranks of the Communist Party to the number two job, replacing 81-year old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, a veteran guerilla who has held the position for more than 20 years.
"His appointment represents a definitive step in the configuration of the future leadership of the nation," Castro told parliament in a session marked by a rare public appearance of 86-year-old Fidel.
Diaz-Canel, seen as a Castro loyalist and technocrat, has been groomed for high office since becoming the youngest member of Cuba's politburo in 2003.
In recent months he has made frequent appearances on state television in an attempt to raise his profile and represented the presidency on several foreign trips, including the symbolic inauguration of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
The younger Castro, who has initiated a series of reforms on the island over the past five years, including easing travel restrictions for citizens and expanding private enterprise, expressed his commitment to the revolution. "I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba," he insisted. "I was elected to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism, not destroy it."
Tomas Bilbao, of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, which seeks to change US policy toward Cuba, said: "Castro has essentially disqualified the historical commanders of the revolution. We need to be prepared for a Cuban government without the Castros."