April 19 (UPI) -- For the first time in decades, someone outside the Castro family has assumed the presidency of Cuba, as Raúl Castro stepped down Thursday.
Cuba's election commission on Wednesday nominated First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel as the only candidate to succeed the 86-year-old Castro as the island nation's next president.
Castro originally intended to step down from the presidency on Feb. 24, but Cuba's National Assembly voted in December to extend the legislative term to Thursday, saying damage from Hurricane Irma delayed the process.
Confirmed by the National Assembly's 605 deputies, Díaz-Canel became president Thursday morning. He has said he will stick close to the Communist Party ideals of his sibling predecessors.
"I believe in continuity," he said. "I think there always will be continuity."
Díaz-Canel represents a new generation of Cuban leadership, which for decades has only known rule under Raúl Castro and his older brother Fidel Castro -- the latter overthrowing the prior government on New Year's Day 1959, after a six-year revolutionary insurgency.
"This will be the first time that you have in power as president someone who was born after 1959, after the Cuban revolution, somebody who was not part of the historic struggles of the 1950s to overthrow the [Fulgencio] Batista dictatorship," said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
While Díaz-Canel will take over the role occupied by the Castros for decades, Raúl Castro will maintain his role as the head of the country's Communist Party until 2021 and will remain in charge of the Cuban armed forces.
Fidel Castro died in 2016.
"Given the fact that the Constitution of Cuba states that the Communist Party is the leading sector of society and that there is no room for any other political party, Raúl Castro will still remain a very powerful figure," Duany said.
University of Miami political science professor Michael Touchton said the transfer of power is an attempt to renew the Cuban Revolution from an internal perspective, and allow the Castro brothers' children -- and a new generation of other leaders -- to move into positions that will allow them to one day continue the family dominance under the island's Communist party regime.
"By extending beyond the immediate Castro family, at least symbolically, it suggests that this is not a personalistic dictatorship," Touchton said. "Communist Party membership, ideology, loyalty and service are important and Díaz-Canel has all of those credentials."
Díaz-Canel was named first vice president of Cuba in 2013, an early signal that he might become the heir to the Castro presidency, following years of service in the Communist Party.
"This guy's been loyal, he's made a few calls for reform, but very few recently," Touchton said. "He was moderate, in no way fomented dissent from his position and he's been there for a long time."
Rocky U.S. relations
The transfer of power in Cuba is complicated by a simultaneous shift in the United States, as President Donald Trump has looked to roll back many of former President Barack Obama's efforts to normalize diplomacy with the Caribbean island nation.
"Since the Trump administration took office, there has been less warmth in the relationship and actually quite a lot of hostility," Duany said.
In November, a year after he was elected, Trump implemented more restrictive regulations on American travel to Cuba to forbid Americans from engaging in business with 180 entities identified by the State Department as having ties to Cuban military, security or intelligence agencies.
The Trump administration also permanently scaled down staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana after officials divulged that 24 embassy employees were victims of "sonic" attacks, which left mysterious symptoms -- including mild traumatic brain injury, permanent hearing loss, loss of balance, headaches and brain swelling.
Authorities still aren't sure what happened, but the attack indicated that years of frosty relations between Havana and Washington could continue.
Trump's policies have led many observers in Cuba to believe the Obama-era efforts to thaw what had been substantially poor diplomatic relations, and the former president's moves to relax sanctions, are being pushed aside.
Additionally, since becoming first vice president, Díaz-Canel has adopted a hard-line stance on Cuba-U.S. relations, more in line with that of Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba during the tumultuous 1960s and was a key figure in events like the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and Cuban trade embargo (1961), which continues today.
"There's an argument internally for hard-liners to retain control and a hard-line approach to Cuban-American relations to be the dominant diplomatic strategy and policy choice on the island," Touchton said.
Touchton added Díaz-Canel isn't likely to fulfill the expectations of observers both inside and outside Cuba, who believe the change in leadership could result in reforms of civil liberties and political rights on the island.
"What happens in Cuban domestic policy colors Cuban relations with the United States because it offers hard-liners in the U.S. government ammunition for strengthening sanctions, undoing the Obama-era reforms and returning to the status quo, pre-Obama," he said.
The Castro legacy
While Castro will hand the reins of the presidency to someone beyond his family Thursday, experts say the Cuban landscape will continue to be shaped by the brothers' decades of dictatorial Communist rule.
Born in 1926 in Biran, Cuba, to a wealthy farmer, Fidel Castro grew up to study politics and at the age of 32 led a revolution to overthrow Batista's regime. He became Cuban prime minister in 1959 after the New Year's Day coup.
In 1961, the United States formally ended diplomatic relations with Cuba and backed a group of some 1,500 CIA-trained Cuban exiles to invade the Bay of Pigs -- with the intention of ending Castro's communist regime. The Cuban fighters were defeated by Castro's army, largely because U.S. President John F. Kennedy refused to provide air cover for the armed exiles.
In October 1962, the United States discovered the Soviet Union was building missile installations in Cuba -- which would open the island's capability to conduct a nuclear strike on the United States. Kennedy decided to blockade the island with Navy warships, which lasted for a month, until the Soviet nuclear stash in Cuba were dismantled.
During the crisis, some U.S. forces were set to defense condition, of DEFCON, 2 -- one of only two times in U.S. history that alert level was reached. Many scholars contend that the crisis marked the closest point the world has come to nuclear war.
Fidel Castro assumed the post of Cuban president in 1976, in addition to his role as Communist Party first secretary, and drove the island nation to become a one-party Communist state bent on ending years of government corruption he said operated under the Batista regime.
In 1980, Castro opened the Mariel Harbor in Cuba to 125,000 Cuban citizens who sought life in the United States. The Mariel Boat Lift, as it became known, landed a sizable Cuban population on the shores of Miami, including thousands of dangerous criminals who'd been released by Castro from Cuban prisons.
Cuba-U.S. relations were further strained in November 1999, following a lengthy custody battle between the Cuban father of 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez -- the lone survivor of a group who'd attempted to reach the United States by boat -- and the boy's relatives in Florida.
Fidel Castro served as Cuba's president until he abdicated power to his brother Raúl Castro in 2008, following years of declining health. Raúl Castro acted as president during the last two years of his brother's tenure and served two more five-year terms.
Fidel Castro lived for eight more years after leaving Havana's government and died on Nov. 26, 2016.
During their rule, the Castros placed tight restraints on Cuba's private sector and prohibited many citizens from owning computers, cellphones and other technology and running many types of private business.
While Raúl Castro helped modernize the nation during his decade as president, he also stymied Cuba's growing private sector by again limiting contracts for private businesses and continued to control information by making Internet access prohibitively expensive for the average citizen.