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Cuban-Born US Senator Hopes for Democratic Change in Cuba

The only Cuban-born member of the U.S. Senate is expressing hope for democratic transformation in Cuba, after an ailing President Fidel Castro temporarily handed over power to his brother, Raul, the country's defense minister.

Senator Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who fled Cuba when he was 15 years old, says developments in recent days on the communist-ruled island may open the door to democratic change:

"My hope is that there will be an opportunity for voices of freedom to be heard within Cuba, that this will begin a moment of transformation and transition to a better life and a better day," said Martinez.

The sentiments were echoed by the Senate's top Democrat, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada.

"I am not a big fan of Fidel Castro. I would hope that his stepping down, either permanently or partially [temporarily], will allow once again democracy to be returned to that country," said Reid.

Senator Martinez says he does not believe Raul Castro will transition the country to democracy, but he suggested there may be others within the government who may want to seek democratic change.

While saying he does not have information about Fidel Castro's health, Martinez said the transfer of power to his brother would not have occurred were he not in a very serious medical condition.

"I think there is a possibility that he is very, very ill or dead," he added. "I do not think there would be an announcement such as this unless it was pretty clear that he was incapacitated beyond recovery in the short term."

Moments later, the White House said it was monitoring the situation in Cuba, but had no reason to believe Fidel Castro was dead.

Senator Martinez urged Cubans to keep their emotions in check and avoid a mass migration to the United States, which said could lead to a tremendous loss of life.

In the House of Representatives, Congressman Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, renewed his call for easing the 44-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba, arguing that more engagement with that country would hasten democratic transition.

Still, those who support changing the policy acknowledge it is an uphill battle noting that the politically influential Cuban-American community in Florida vehemently opposes any relaxation of the embargo.