HAVANA - Raul Castro said Sunday as he accepted a new five-year term that it will he be his last as Cuba's president, for the first time putting a date on the end of the Castro era. He tapped rising star Miguel Diaz-Canel as his top lieutenant and first in the line of succession.
The 81-year-old Castro also said he hopes to establish two-term limits and age caps for political offices including the presidency - an astonishing prospect for a nation led by Castro or his older brother Fidel since the 1959 revolution.
Some constitutional changes are to be so dramatic that they will have to be ratified by the Cuban people in a public referendum, he said, though he added he was not named president in order to destroy Cuba's socialist system.
Cuba is at a moment of "historic transcendence," Castro told lawmakers in speaking of his decision to name Diaz-Canel to the No. 2 job. "It represents a definitive step in the configuration of the future leadership of the nation through the gradual transfer ... of key roles to new generations."
"This will be my last term," he said. Castro's term will end in 2018.
The 52-year-old Diaz-Canel is now a heartbeat from the presidency and has risen higher than any other Cuban official who didn't directly participate in the 1959 Cuban revolution.
Raul Castro fueled interest in Sunday's legislative gathering after mentioning on Friday his possible retirement and suggesting lightheartedly that he had plans to resign at some point.
It's now clear that while he was joking about retiring soon, he was dead serious when he promised that Sunday's speech would have fireworks.
In recent weeks, Diaz-Canel, an electrical engineer by training and former minister of higher education, has frequently been featured on Cuban state television news broadcasts in an apparent attempt to raise his profile ahead of the announcement.
Diaz-Canel traveled to Venezuela for the symbolic inauguration of Hugo Chavez, a key Castro ally who had been re-elected president but was too ill to be sworn in. Diaz-Canel was also seen on TV presiding over a ceremony involving Cuba's national baseball squad, and accompanied Castro to Chile for a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.
Lawmakers also named to the ruling Council of State Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, Castro's previous first vice president; comptroller general Gladys Bejerano; second Vice President Ramiro Valdes; Havana Communist Party secretary Lazara Mercedes Lopez Acea; and Salvador Valdes Mesa, head of Cuba's labor union.