Miguel Díaz-Canel, who wasn't even born at the time of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, is the only candidate proposed for president by Cuba's National Assembly, which voted Wednesday on a successor to the retiring Raúl Castro.
Cuba's parliament, however, won't officially reveal the results of the vote until it reconvenes Thursday.
The 605 deputies selected a new 31-member Council of State and its new president from among names proposed by a commission. However, there was only one candidate for each available post and Díaz-Canel was the only name proposed for president. Deputies were able to vote only yes or no on the slate.
Among the names missing on the list proposed for the Council of State is 87-year-old José Ramón Machado Ventura, an old guard revolutionary. A 68-year-old agricultural engineer, Salvador Antonio Valdés Mesa, has been proposed to replace Díaz-Canel as first vice president. He formerly headed the Ministry of Work and Social Security and the Workers Union of Cuba.
No member of the Castro family will be part of the new Council of State.
The transition marks not only a generational shift in power, but also will be the first time a non-Castro has occupied the presidency in more than 40 years. In the early years after the revolution, four men served as president — some for just a matter of days — before the Cuban Constitution was rewritten in 1976 and Fidel Castro became president for the next three decades. His younger brother Raúl, 86, served two terms beginning in 2008 after taking over provisionally for an ailing Fidel in 2006.
Raúl received a standing ovation as he entered the Palace of Convention where the National Assembly is meeting.
Although Díaz-Canel represents a new generation, most observers don't expect dramatic changes from the Communist Party stalwart who will turn 58 on Friday. In fact, the National Assembly has asked Cubans to comment on social media under #SomosContinuidad (We are continuity).
In the past year, the Cuba leadership has increasingly thrust Díaz-Canel, a former education minister, into the spotlight, making him the face of hurricane recovery efforts after Irma slammed the island last September, sending him on foreign trips and making him available for symbolic photo ops. But few Cubans know what to expect from the man who became first vice president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers in 2013 and has managed to survive the treacherous waters of Cuban politics for five years.
He had a reputation as being pragmatic and accessible when he was a party chief in both Villa Clara and Holguín provinces, and is viewed as someone who embraces new technology.
"There has to be a focus on ties to, links with the people — to listen to the people, investigate the problems that exist and inspire debates about those problems," Díaz-Canel told reporters during recent voting for members of the National Assembly.
But how much Díaz-Canel will really be running the show remains to be seen. Castro is expected to remain as the head of the powerful Communist Party and if Cuban leadership "feels the need for Raúl's firm hand, he can always exercise it as head of the party," said William LeoGrande, an American University government professor who has studied Cuba for decades.
"The significance of this event cannot be overstated. The new leadership is composed of individuals who did not participate directly in the armed insurrection against the prior government of Fulgencio Batista and whose life experience is vastly different from the founding members of the Cuban government," said Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer who has represented cruise lines and other U.S. companies that do business with Cuba. Ultimately, it "could have a profound impact on the direction of the country."
"The transition is nothing and it is everything. It's nothing because the system stays the same, but everything because the Cuban Revolution is built on the name Castro, the Castro brand," said Freyre, international practice chair at Akerman.
The composition of the new Council of State also is expected to represent a departure from the past. Eleven new members have been proposed, and those put forward for five vice president slots include three women.
They are: 85-year-old Comandante Ramiro Valdés, Public Health Minister Roberto Tomás Morales Ojeda, Controller General Gladys María Bejerano, Inés María Chapman, president of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources, and Beatriz Johnson Urrutia, president of government in Santiago province.
Juan Esteban Lazo Hernández was reelected president of the National Assembly.
The National Assembly is meeting at a time when Cuba faces an array of challenges from a limping economy, a dismal sugar harvest, and the near collapse of its Venezuelan benefactor to a deteriorating relationship with the United States and a restive younger population that wants a better quality of life and more opportunities.
Díaz-Canel is expected to continue the limited economic reform process begun under Raúl Castro.
During Castro's tenure, Cuba became friendlier to foreign investment; began the process of turning state barbershops, beauty salons and other service industries into worker-run cooperatives; greatly expanded self-employment and allowed small business to form; permitted the buying and selling of real estate and cars; began leasing unused state land to farmers; and adopted a comprehensive tax code.
That's probably his greatest legacy, said LeoGrande. "He institutionalized an economic reform, which transformed the ideological foundation of the regime for 50 years from a highly centralized, state-driven economy that was not very successful at generating growth.
"He broke the psychological barrier with more market-oriented reforms," said LeoGrande, "but it is unfinished business." Currently the expansion of the private sector is on pause awaiting new regulations.
But the reform process doesn't go nearly far enough for some Cuban exiles, and the transition of power is not one that many Cuban Americans envisioned when they thought of a post-Castro Cuba.
Some say it is not a transition at all. Dozens of Cuban exiles demonstrated in Little Havana Sunday to protest what they said was merely shifting power from one dictator to another.
“Those who know the reality of Communist Cuba know that this so-called transfer of power from one tyrant to another is no watershed moment. It is more smoke and mirrors from the dictatorship," said South Florida Republican Rep. U.S. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
She said Raúl Castro will continue to call all the shots. "Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic does not mean that the Cuban people are any closer to freedom than they were yesterday," Ros-Lehtinen said.