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US Watching Castro Health Crisis

U.S. officials are closely monitoring developments in Cuba, where an ailing President Fidel Castro has temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul, the country's defense minister. The State Department says the U.S. hope, eventually, is for a transition to democracy on the communist-run island.

Fidel Castro has been a major political irritant to the United States for decades. But the Bush administration is, at least publicly, taking a low-key approach to the Cuban leader's latest health crisis.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters the turn of events in Havana is being closely followed by the U.S. officials who normally monitor Cuba.

But he said there has been no task force set up within the State Department, or any special contacts with other governments about the situation.

He also said it is premature to discuss what the United States might do in the event that Raul Castro, who has long been considered his brother's heir-apparent, assumes permanent control of the government.

"That's getting down the road. It's not a situation that we're dealing with right now," he said. "We have made clear: our policy with respect to Cuba stands. We fully support a democratic, free, prosperous Cuba in which the Cuban people have the opportunity through the ballot box to choose who will lead them, and not have their leaders imposed upon them."

The spokesman said it is clear Cubans want democracy to follow the communist era, and that the United States and the American people would do everything possible to stand with them.

Three weeks ago, President Bush approved an $80 million program to bolster non-governmental groups in Cuba with the aim of hastening the end of the 47-year-old Castro dictatorship.

The program, recommended by a study commission headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, provides for among other things the dissemination of uncensored information to Cubans via broadcasting and the Internet.

The commission promised extensive U.S. financial and logistical help to a transitional government on the island if it committed to democracy and asked for American help.

The panel also criticized the growing relationship between the Castro government and Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chavez, who has been providing Cuba with financial aid and cut-rate oil.

Spokesman McCormack said he was unaware of any U.S. diplomatic contacts with Venezuela since the news emerged Monday of Fidel Castro's illness.