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Cuba`s President Raul Castro to retire in 2018

In an unexpected announcement, Cuban President Raul Castro said that he would stand down at the end of his second term in 2018.

Zeenews Bureau

Havana: In an unexpected announcement, Cuban President Raul Castro on Sunday said that he would stand down at the end of his second term in 2018.

"I would like to make clear ... this will be my last term," he said during a nationally-televised speech.

The 81-year-old Castro further tapped Miguel Diaz-Canel as his top lieutenant and first in the line of succession.

Raul 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 their 1959 revolution.

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 heady days of the revolution.

"This will be my last term," Castro said, his voice firm.

In his 35-minute speech, Castro hinted at other changes to the Constitution, some so dramatic that they will have to be ratified by the Cuban people in a referendum. Still, he scotched any idea that the country would soon abandon socialism, saying he had not assumed the presidency in order to destroy Cuba`s system.

"I was not chosen to be President to restore capitalism to Cuba," he said. "I was elected to defend, maintain and continue to perfect Socialism, not destroy it."

Castro fuelled interest in Sunday`s legislative gathering after mentioning on Friday his possible retirement and suggesting light-heartedly that he had plans to resign at some point.

It`s now clear that he was serious when he promised that Sunday`s speech would have fireworks, and would touch on his future in leadership.

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, replacing the 81-year-old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who fought with the Castros in the Sierra Maestra.

Castro praised Machado Ventura and another aging revolutionary for offering to leave their positions so that younger leaders could move up.

Their selflessness is "a concrete demonstration of their genuine revolutionary fibre ... That is the essence of the founding generation of this revolution."

Castro said that Diaz-Canel`s promotion "represents a definitive step in the configuration of the future leadership of the nation through the gradual and orderly transfer of key roles to new generations."

"Our greatest satisfaction is the tranquillity and serene confidence we feel as we deliver to the new generations the responsibility to continue building socialism," he added.

On the streets of Havana, where people often express a jaded scepticism of all things political, there was genuine excitement.

Since taking over from Fidel in 2006, Castro has instituted a slate of important economic and social changes, expanding private enterprise, legalising a real estate market and relaxing hated travel restrictions.

Still, the country remains ruled by the Communist Party and any opposition to it lacks legal recognition.

Castro has mentioned term limits before, but he has never said specifically when he would step down, and the concept has yet to be codified into Cuban law.

If he keeps his word, Castro will leave office no later than 2018. Cuban-American exiles in the United States have waited decades for the end of the Castro era, although they will likely be dismayed if it ends on the brothers` terms.

Nevertheless, the promise of a change at the top could have deep significance for US-Cuba ties. The wording of Washington`s 51-year economic embargo on the island specifies that it cannot be lifted while a Castro is in charge.

(With Agency inputs)

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