Cuban President Raul Castro, right, and brother Fidel attend the opening… (Ismael Francisco / Cubadebate )
MEXICO CITY — In one of the strongest portents yet of a post-Castro Cuba, President Raul Castro said Sunday that his newly granted five-year term would be his last, and he took on a relatively young vice president who presumably could succeed him.
It was the first time a deadline had been put on the Castro era, which saw the island ruled by first Fidel and then Raul Castro for more than half a century since the 1959 revolution ousted an abusive, U.S.-backed regime.
Raul Castro was ratified as president for his second five-year term during a meeting of the Cuban parliament, which only convenes rarely to decide such matters. The congress also named Miguel Diaz-Canel, an engineer and former education official with an increasingly high profile, as Castro's first vice president.
Castro is 81. Diaz-Canel is 52. Castro and other top Cuban officials, until now, had regularly been criticized for failing to promote younger future leaders, favoring instead older revolution-era cronies in senior positions in the Communist-led government.
Raul's older brother Fidel, the historic leader of the Cuban revolution and the island nation's commander for decades, stepped down in 2006 because of a near-fatal illness, and Raul formally assumed power in 2008.
Raul has shown a pragmatic side, ordering important economic reforms that allowed a measure of free enterprise and the selling and buying of private property, as well as, this year, the lifting of long-standing restrictions on travel by Cuban citizens. He said the steps were necessary, not to do away with Cuba's socialist model but to modernize and improve it.
In that vein, apparently, he has also chosen to groom a new generation of leaders, at least in small, initial steps. Diaz-Canel replaces the 82-year-old Juan Ramon Machado.
His election, Raul Castro said in a nationally broadcast speech Sunday, "represents a definitive step … in the future direction of the nation." He called the transition "historic."
Castro also said he would retire after this term ends in 2018 and announced that he would propose term limits and retirement ages for the president and other top officials.
"The generational transition begins," Cuba expert Philip Peters, an analyst with the U.S.-based Lexington Institute, said in a blog post Sunday.
He said it was the first time that a "new-generation figure" was named to the post of first vice president, which is first in the line of succession.
"Step by step, this old soldier [Raul Castro] has been preparing for the day when he will leave his post, and he has now picked the one who will relieve him," Peters wrote.
In what was a poignant moment for many of the Cuban apparatchiks at the parliamentary session, Fidel Castro made a rare public appearance.