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President Raul Castro has been re-elected to what he vowed would be his last term in office, and unveiled a 52-year-old political heir tasked with securing the future of the communism in Cuba after 2018.
"This will be my last term," Castro, 81, told lawmakers after the National Assembly reelected him Sunday and named a new regime number two, Council of State Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
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 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," Castro said.
The changes are in line with a decision adopted by the Communist Party last year to limit the terms of top office holder to 10 years. Raul Castro will reach this limit on February 24, 2018.
Raul Castro became Cuba's interim president when Fidel took 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.
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. But there is no guarantee a successor would feed Cuba's economy as much as Chavez.
Diaz-Canel, who turns 53 in April, is an electrical engineer by training, a former education minister and the president's de facto political heir seeking to project the Americas' only one-party Communist regime into the future.
Since March, Diaz-Canel 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.
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.
Barring any changes, Diaz-Canel would succeed Raul Castro, who will be 82 in June, if the president serves out his term through 2018.
A careful speaker, the lanky Diaz-Canel also has been a leader of the Communist Youth Union, and went on an international "mission" to Nicaragua during the first leftist Sandinista government.
He rose up the ranks, leading the party in Villa Clara in central Cuba, before being chosen to lead it in Holguin province in the east. Diaz-Canel was then bumped up to the Politburo in 2003.
There was more new blood among the five vice presidents on the Council of State, in the person of Mercedes Lopez Acea, 48, the former leader of the Communist Party's Havana provincial assembly.
And Raul Castro's own daughter, Mariela Castro, was elected as an assembly lawmaker for the first time.
A professional sexologist, she has lobbied the regime to guarantee better treatment for gays, lesbian and transgender Cubans. She is expected to push for Cuba to legalize same-sex marriage.
The National Assembly, whose members ran for office in October unopposed, also chose Esteban Lazo, 68, as their new speaker. Seen as an ideological hardliner, he is also the regime's most prominent Afro-Cuban leader.
"Lazo has been all about ideological orthodoxy," said professor Arturo Lopez-Levy at the University of Denver in the US state of Colorado.