Cuban state media announced Tuesday that the government has replaced charismatic Culture Minister Abel Prieto, a well-known writer, professor and intellectual who has been in the role since 1997.
Prieto was named an adviser to President Raul Castro, an indication he remains in favor, and Deputy Minister Rafael Bernal was promoted to replace him.
The announcement published by the Communist Party daily Granma noted Prieto's "experience and the positive results obtained in the exercise of his office."
Prieto cuts an unmistakable figure in Havana, well over 6 feet tall and sporting his trademark beard as well as long, wavy hair cascading over his shoulders
He is known for being at ease with visiting cultural dignitaries and has often been seen chumming around with American stars like Wynton Marsalis, Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover.
Since 2010, the 61-year-old has appeared increasingly thin amid rumors of ill health. No reason for his replacement was given.
But rumors of Prieto's imminent departure have been swirling since last month, when his latest work, "Viajes de Miguel Luna" ("Travels of Miguel Luna"), was presented at Havana's Book Fair.
The launch was attended by practically every big name in Cuba's cultural world, from writers and intellectuals to painters and actors, and in hindsight seems to have been an unofficial going-away party.
Prieto was named culture minister 15 years ago under Fidel Castro and survived a Cabinet shake-up after Raul Castro became president.
Widely respected by the creative class and apparently equally at home with government and Communist Party officials, he has bridged the sometimes tense relationship between artists who test the boundaries of acceptable speech and authorities who bristle at criticism.
Prieto defended the socialist system to skeptical artists and encouraged them to tone down their harsher critiques, while simultaneously prodding authorities to be more lenient and forgiving.
"I believe that creative freedom can never be endangered in our cultural policy," Prieto said in 2011.
A number of important cultural centers, schools and performance spaces opened on his watch.
Prieto also published a number of short stories including the collections "Los bitongos y los guapos" ("The Spoiled and the Handsome") in 1980 and "Noche de Sabado" ("Saturday Night") in 1989, in addition to critical analysis of the works of writer Jose Lezama Lima.
His novel "El Vuelo del Gato" ("The Flight of the Cat") in 1999 was well-received by critics and was later made into a play.
Bernal is a longtime official who worked in the Education Ministry before being named Prieto's deputy in 1997.
Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.