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Miguel Díaz-Canel becomes Cuba's president, Raúl Castro steps down

CUBA (NBC News) - Cuba has a new president, and for the first time in over 40 years, his last name is not Castro.

Miguel Díaz-Canel officially became president on Thursday morning after Raúl Castro stepped down and Díaz-Canel was confirmed by the National Assembly.

Although Castro will remain head of the Communist Party, the most powerful governing body on the island, his departure from the presidency represents a symbolic shift in leadership. Díaz-Canel, who has served as Cuba's first vice president since 2013, turns 58 on Friday.

The transition is an effort to guarantee that new leaders can maintain power in the communist-run government. But Díaz-Canel faces challenges ahead, primarily economic stagnation and a younger generation's disenchantment with their limited opportunities.

Before stepping down, Raul Castro, 86, was president for two five-year terms after the late Fidel Castro, his brother, fell ill in 2006 and transferred power to him.

Analysts debate how much power Díaz-Canel can wield as president with Castro still at the helm of the Communist Party.

"I think it's going to be very tough for him," said Pedro Freyre, chair of international practice for Akerman LLP. "I don't know that he can do it."

Díaz-Canel had long been seen as the overwhelming favorite to replace Castro, after climbing the ranks of the Communist Party.

Before becoming first vice president, he was the minister of higher education. From 1994 to 2003, he headed the Communist Party in the province of Villa Clara where he gained prominence. It was a time when the country was suffering from a severe economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had heavily subsidized the island. He became known as an easy going person who wore Bermuda shorts and got around on a bicycle.

The presidential transition comes at a time when Cuba faces an economic recession and an average salary of around $30 a month. Additionally, Cubans are feeling frustrated over the slow pace of market-style reforms initiated by Raúl Castro in 2011 and as relations with the U.S. have cooled significantly under the Trump administration.

In early March, the Trump administration announced it would permanently reduce the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana by 60 percent. The decision came after the U.S. evacuated nonessential personnel in October after embassy staff members were sickened in a series of unexplained health incidents. As a result, the State Department issued a warning, recommending Americans “reconsider” traveling to the island.

Cuba denied any role and has cooperated with an FBI investigation.

The diplomatic incident came on the heels of President Donald Trump's reversal of Obama-era policy changes regarding Cuba. Trump renewed travel restrictions, and Americans now must visit as part of organized tour groups run by U.S. companies.

As the U.S. has hardened its policy, Cuba has responded with tough talk.

In November, Díaz-Canel told NBC News during municipal elections, “we continue to be open to relations” with the United States. But in March, during National Assembly elections, he said the revolution is being “attacked and threatened” by an administration that “has offended Cuba.”Due to a legal limit established by Raúl Castro, Díaz-Canel can only govern a maximum of 10 years — equal to two terms.


 Cuban President Raul Castro attends the constitutive session of the IX Legislature of the Cuban National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, 18 April 2018. Alejandro Ernesto / EPA

Raúl Castro attended the unusual two-day legislative ceremony that started Wednesday where the 605 members of Cuba’s National Assembly voted Díaz-Canel as Cuba's new president.

The Cuban National Assembly has generally met and selected the president in one day. Its votes are nearly always anonymous and seen as reflecting the will of the country’s top leadership.

According to Cuban state-owned media, the decision to extend this year's vote was made to streamline "a session of such importance requires."

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