Senator Barack Obama has tried to stand out from other U.S. presidential candidates by saying, as president, he would be open to meeting with some of the most hostile foreign leaders, including those in Cuba and Iran. The policy has drawn criticism from his opponents, but it is beginning to win support among Cuban-Americans, who see a need for change in U.S. policy toward the island. VOA's Brian Wagner has this report.
Senator Obama has said his willingness to meet with America's foes is intended to overcome years of stagnation on crucial security and human rights issues. In recent speeches, he has pointed out that past U.S. presidents met with the leaders of China and the Soviet Union at periods of heightened tension. And he says now is the time to engage the governments in Syria and Iran, for example, because he says the Bush administration's policy against direct talks is hurting American efforts in Iraq.
In a speech in Miami last week, Obama told Cuban-American leaders that he would also engage Communist leaders in Havana, to demand the release of political prisoners and the start of democratic reforms in Cuba.
"As president I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at the time and place of my choosing. But only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, but more importantly to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people," he said.
Critics reject the senator's position as a naive proposal, or even a danger to U.S. interests.
His rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton said it would be a mistake to hold presidential talks before Cuba begins to implement long-awaited changes.
Senator John McCain also expressed criticism in a speech before Cuban-Americans and other Miami residents last week. He said direct talks would only hurt the cause of Cuban democracy.
"These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators: there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms," he said. "They can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy. That is what they would think."
Senator McCain has promised that, if elected, he would maintain many of President Bush's policies, including trade and travel restrictions. Obama has said he would ease limits on Cubans traveling to visit family on the island.
The debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba has resonated among the Cuban exile population in Miami, where many people are upset that current U.S. policies have been unable to weaken the Communist government especially after the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul.
Pepe Hernandez is president of the Cuban-American National Foundation, which hosted Obama's talks in Miami. He said he does not necessarily endorse the Illinois senator, but after Obama's speech he said he welcomed the message of change.
Hernandez says a solution is needed to the Cuban situation, adding the United States should not cross its arms and do nothing while Raul Castro consolidates power.
Change may be difficult for some Cuban exiles. Miami businessman Javier Mora said he was impressed by Obama's speech, but he said his brother rejects any negotiations with Cuba's leadership.
"He will not listen to it, when I say this is the only way we can achieve a change in Cuba," he explained. "But even in my generation I have to fight, I have to convince people."
Miami's Cuban community is known for strongly backing Republican presidents, but leaders say this year may be different. Obama is hoping his policy of engagement will win over enough voters to boost his campaign in the state.
The Illinois senator has said his possible offer of talks with U.S. foes also would include top officials in Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called for the destruction of the Israel.
The idea of talks has raised some concerns among Jewish voters, who say Obama's foreign policy toward Israel could endanger the nation's security.
But University of Miami law professor David Abraham says few Jewish voters believe a presidential meeting with Iranian officials would upset the balance in the Middle East. He said, like the Cuban-American community, many Jewish voters are eager to see new ideas in the White House.
"The last eight years in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community have not been successful," he said. "They also see that it is time for a change."
Obama's campaign is hoping his policy will help win needed support among Jewish voters, who so far have given strong backing to Obama's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton.