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Cuba's Leadership Change Sparks Debate in US

The leadership change in Cuba has sparked a debate in the United States as to whether there should be greater engagement and dialogue between the two estranged nations. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, some U.S. legislators, both Democrat and Republican, are warming to the idea of direct talks between Washington and Havana.

News of Fidel Castro's retirement as Cuba's president quickly became an issue in America's presidential campaign.

In a nationally-televised debate, Democratic contender Barack Obama said as president he would favor direct talks with his Cuban counterpart. Democratic rival Hillary Clinton did not rule out such an encounter if certain conditions for talks are agreed to beforehand.

But the likely Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, dismissed such a meeting, labeling any hope that talks with Cuba's communist leadership would yield positive results as, in his words, "dangerously naïve."

Officially, Cuba and the United States have no diplomatic relations, although both countries have a diplomatic presence in each other's capital through what are called "interest sections." The United States has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba for more than 40 years, but allows cash-only sales of food and medicine to the island.

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, says Cuba's change in leadership provides an opportunity for a thaw in relations

"The end of the Castro era is in sight," said Biden. "And so we should be preparing what that transition is going to look like. We should be taking independent moves now from establishing mail service to allowing more frequent travel with family members [by Cuban exiles], but not lifting the embargo until there is a response [from Cuban officials] to political prisoners - all the things that are wrong with this Castro administration."

Biden was speaking on ABC's This Week program. Also appearing on This Week was Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who said it is time to review and reform America's stance toward Cuba.

"I have believed for a while that we should be looking at a new strategy for Cuba, and that is: opening more trade," said Hutchison. "If we can give the [Cuban] people more contact with the outside world, if we can build up an economy [in Cuba] that might make the people more able to fight the dictatorship, I think that is something we should have considered a while back."

The Bush administration has given no indication that a change in U.S. policy to Cuba is imminent. President Bush recently reaffirmed the long-standing U.S. position that Cuba must hold genuine multi-party elections if it is to join the ranks of the world's democratic nations.

In a statement Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Cuban people have an inalienable right to decide their country's future without fear or repression, and urged the Cuban government to begin a process of peaceful democratic change.