A Cuban-born U.S. senator has expressed optimism about the future of his homeland, but urged patience for political change. Senator Mel Martinez spoke at an event in Coral Gables, near Miami, on Tuesday, more than two weeks after the announcement that Cuban President Fidel Castro underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding and transferred power to his younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.

Senator Martinez, a Florida Republican who fled Cuba as a teenager, describes the current situation in Cuba as a moment of great change and opportunity.

"What we're hoping is that there will be wise and future-thinking leadership that's going to think more about the people of Cuba and less about how they control power; that's going to think more about how they give people an opportunity for a better life, rather then 'how do we maintain what we got' in terms of the power structure that they have established," said Mel Martinez.

He says political change on the island will take time.

Martinez left Cuba in the early 1960s at age 15 as part of Operation Pedro Pan in which Cuban minors were allowed to leave the island without their parents for resettlement in the United States.

The legislator dismissed recently released photos of Mr. Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a show, and accused Mr. Chavez of interfering in Cuba's affairs.

"The Cuban people are very nationalistic people and they don't appreciate others interfering in what is a very Cuban process," he said. "Hugo Chavez should concentrate on his country, leave Cuba alone. He doesn't play a role in the future of Cuba. That should be a decision made by the Cuban people."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington that the Chavez-Castro alliance does not reflect too well on the Venezuelan leader.

"I know President Chavez has made it a point to try to develop a very close relationship with Fidel Castro," said Sean McCormack. "That is his decision. I'm not sure that that's something that really burnishes his democratic credentials, but that's his decision to make."

Mr. Chavez traveled to Cuba to visit Fidel Castro on Sunday, the Cuban leader's 80th birthday. The two were seen in some of the first images that were released of Mr. Castro since he transferred power to his brother.

Michael Shifter with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington says that although the relationship of Cuba and Venezuela is unsettling to the United States, Mr. Castro may have helped constrain Mr. Chavez.

"Should Castro leave the scene, I think that Chavez then becomes even more of a wildcard than he is already in regional, global politics," said Michael Shifter. "Ironically, Castro has been sort of a moderating force on Chavez because he's somebody who's been around for a long time."

He also says the United States should rethink its strategy toward Cuba, and consider ways to establish contacts with whatever government comes into place after Fidel Castro.