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White House Says It Will Not Reach Out to Raul Castro

White House reaction to the news of Fidel Castro's illness has been cautious and restrained. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports, officials say there will be no change in policy now that his brother Raul, Cuba's defense minister, holds power, at least temporarily.

White House Spokesman Tony Snow says President Bush has long hoped that one day Cuba will be free and democratic. But he says that will not happen with Raul Castro in charge.

"Raul Castro's attempt to impose himself on the Cuban people is much the same as what his brother did, so no, there are no plans to reach out," he said.

During a session with reporters, Snow downplayed prospects for any change in relations between Washington and Havana. He said Fidel Castro is a dictator who is now temporarily handing power to his brother, the nation's prison keeper.

Snow refused to speculate on the health of the ailing Cuban leader, who has long been a major political irritant to the United States. But he did say there is no reason to believe he is dead.

"We don't know what the condition Fidel Castro is," he said. "We don't know the facts of this because Cuba is a closed society."

The situation in Cuba dominated a White House briefing Tuesday, with questions posed about everything from Mr. Castro's medical condition, to the likelihood that the shift in power might prompt many would-be refugees to try to flee the country.

Snow stressed he would not engage in speculation in certain areas.

"What is going on is that a lot of people are asking questions about the death of a person who is not dead," he said. "And so I am just not going to get there yet."

One such question dealt with the status of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. Snow was asked if he will now become President Bush's chief nemesis in the region.

"The president is worried about people in the neighborhood who seek to destabilize neighbors using economic or other means," he said. "It is one of the reasons why the policy of this government has always been to push for free trade and to get along well with neighbors. I will leave it at that."

On Monday, before Fidel Castro's illness was announced, President Bush was interviewed by a Spanish-language radio station in heavily Cuban-American Miami. The president talked at some length about Cuba's future, saying his administration has a plan in place to help the Cuban people when the Castro era ends.