Transition now seen as underway in Cuba

Cuba has begun its transition to rule by someone whose last name isn't Castro and is young enough not to have fought alongside Fidel Castro in the revolution that ushered in communism in 1959.

As Cuba tinkers with market-based economic reforms, the man to watch, the new number two guy in the regime, is Miguel Diaz-Canel, 52.

He is an electrical engineer by profession who has long been active in the communist party at the provincial level and gradually worked his way up, under the wings of the current president, Raul Castro. In 2003 he was named to the Politburo of the party.

On Sunday the National Assembly approved a second and final five year term for Raul Castro. But he joked last week that he might retire at some point, citing his age. So this at least raises the possibility he might not complete his term, setting the stage for Diaz-Canel to come forward.

He is described as amiable and discreet, without the charisma of 86-year-old Fidel, the iconic national hero, or Raul, who took over in 2006 when his elder brother fell ill.

But things don't always turned out as planned in Cuba. In the 1990s other men emerged as people to watch -- Carlos Lage, Felipe Perez Roque and Roberto Robaina -- only to fall in disfavor and be left in the wayside.

Diaz-Canel is the first heir apparent in Cuba not to have fought in the revolution that ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista and brought Castro to power. He was born the year after the war ended.

Diaz-Canel has burst into the powerful 31-member Council of State as its first vice president. This marks "the start of the post-Castro era," Cuba affairs analyst Arturo Lopez-Levy of the University of Denver told AFP.

Diaz-Canel, as political heir, cuts a starkly different profile from the revolutionary leadership, whose members are mostly in their 80s.

Lopez-Levy said Diaz-Canel stands out in Cuba for three reasons: his relative youth, his gradual rise by working in the party and not through revolutionary war credentials, and for being a civilian with little military experience.

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.

Cuban political scientist Carlos Alzugaray said Diaz-Canel would have his work cut out for him if he reached the top.

"No one can govern Cuba like Fidel and Raul Castro have," he said. People in the next wave of leadership along with Diaz-Canel lack "the charismatic legitimacy which is the key to historic leadership."

So there will be a test period in which they have to show if they have the skill and ability to press forward with the timid economic and political reforms undertaken so far in Cuba, Alzugaray said.