Miguel Diaz-Canel succeeds Raul Castro as Cuba's new president

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Cuba swears in its new president on Thursday, with outgoing leader Raul Castro, 86, handing over power to his first vice-president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57. The new Cuban leader also called for the unity of the Cuban people to continue to build a successful and sustainable socialism in the Caribbean island.

The inauguration, following Castro's reported selection of Diaz-Canel as his successor and an almost-unanimous vote by the National Assembly, marks the first time since 1959 that the country will be led by a president who is not in the Castro family.

Diaz-Canel is seen as a loyalist of the Communist Party, which is designated by the constitution as Cuba's guiding political force, and he has worked his way up the party's ranks over three decades.

He faces the task to revive an economy that continues to struggle despite Castro's economic reforms, as well as managing a power transition that represents a novelty for the 80 percent the island's population born, like him, after 1959. There, people described him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services.

It's the first time in almost six decades that Cuba is being led by a man not named Castro. Diaz-Canel, 57, said Castro would remain the leader of the revolution and would be involved in major decisions. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice presidency.

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"Comrade Raul Castro has more than honored the enormous responsibility entrusted by the Cuban people to take the witness from Commander Fidel Castro, performing with wisdom, loyalty, and courage; as he did in all the tasks that history put him in front, as a combatant of a thousand battles with Fidel, since July 26, the Granma and the Sierra Maestra, with the triumph of the Revolution, for nearly six decades of anti-imperialist resistance and integral progress of the Cuban people", Maduro said.

In a video of a Communist Party meeting that inexplicably leaked to the public a year ago, Diaz-Canel expressed a series of orthodox positions that included somberly pledging to shutter some independent media and labeling some European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion. Worldwide observers and Cubans alike will be scrutinizing every move he makes after he officially takes office on Thursday. Today, more than two-thirds of Cubans work in the inefficient state sector, earning on average of US$30 a month.

As in Cuba's legislative elections, all of the leaders selected Wednesday were picked by a government-appointed commission.

The Candidacy Commission also nominated another six vice presidents of the Council of State, Cuba's highest government body. Only one, 85-year-old Ramiro Valdez, was among the revolutionaries who fought with the Castros in the late 1950s in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.