HAVANA (Reuters) ― Cuba’s new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, began his term on Thursday with a promise to defend the socialist revolution led by the Castro brothers since 1959, giving a strident speech that also emphasized the need to modernize the island’s economy.
A stalwart of the ruling Communist Party, Diaz-Canel was sworn in to replace Raul Castro by the National Assembly in a new chapter for the Caribbean island but one that has been carefully managed and is aimed at preserving the political system.
“The mandate given by the people to this house is to give continuity to the Cuban revolution in a crucial historic moment,” Diaz-Canel told the assembly in his first speech as president.
He delivered a long homage to 86-year-old Raul Castro, calling him the best student of his brother Fidel.
Fidel Castro, who led a band of rebels that overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator and then ruled for decades, handed over power to Raul Castro in 2008 as his health deteriorated. He died in 2016.
Raul Castro will retain considerable clout as he will remain head of the Communist Party until a congress in 2021. Diaz-Canel, 57, said Castro would remain the leader of the revolution and would be involved in major decisions.
He praised him as a fighter and for the reforms he ushered in during his decade as president.
His speech laid out a course for his five-year term, in which he will have to strike a balance between defending Cuba’s socialist system and reforming it enough to satisfy a young generation hungry for better economic conditions.
He confirmed expectations that the transition would not herald sweeping changes to one of the world’s last state-run economies and one-party systems, promising there would be no return to capitalism.
Diaz-Canel, who has risen the ranks of the Communist Party over three decades, said the new period would also be characterized by “modernization of the economic and social model.”
He said there would be no compromise in Cuba’s foreign policy, which is marked by volatile relations with the United States. In a repetition of a long-held stance by Havana, he said he would hold dialogue with anybody who treated Cuba as an equal.
Thursday’s session was held on the 57th anniversary of Cuba’s 1961 defeat of a CIA-backed Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, a victory that Havana has long marked as a symbol of its resistance to “imperialist” pressure for change from Washington.
Of the 604 lawmakers present, 603 voted in favor of making Diaz-Canel president, marking a generational shift from the elderly leaders who fought to topple dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Castro listened from the front row of the assembly, rocking back and forth in his chair. At one moment he stood up, arms raised to thunderous applause.
For many Cubans, struggling with economic hardships and frustrated with the government’s emphasis on continuity rather than change, the transition in leader is seen as unlikely to bring much beyond the symbolism of a new leader.
“We always wish the symbolic would translate into real and concrete actions for our lives,” said Jose Jasan Nieves, 30, the editor of an alternative news outlet to the state-run media monopoly. “But this isn’t the case.”
Cubans hope the next government can revive one of the world’s last Soviet-style centrally planned economies, which has failed to improve under Castro’s limited market reforms.
Castro’s time in office will also be remembered for his landmark agreement with former U.S. President Barack Obama to restore long-severed diplomatic ties and seek an end to decades of hostilities between the two countries.
Relations have been strained again under President Donald Trump.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Frances Kerry)