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Castro exit unlikely to thaw U.S.-Cuba relations

The State Department said Tuesday that Castro's departure won't lead to a change in policy or the lifting of the embargo.

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"It's a resignation on paper only," says Ramon Alvarez, a former Cuban government worker who escaped to the US soon after Castro took power. "Many Cubans on the island will be a little emboldened and test the limits a little more, to see if Raúl has the control his brother did. But I don't think anybody believes this will lead to any change in how America treats Cuba, or that anything will improve soon."

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Second-generation Cuban-Americans seemed more hopeful over the transition of power in Havana.

"It's a real opportunity for the talking to begin," says Hector Castillo, a construction-firm manager in Miami whose father fled the Castro regime in 1972. "Things might remain the same, and many people will think that Fidel is still in control from the background, but the US cannot know how responsive Raúl will be to change and reform unless it makes the right noises."

Mr. Castillo suggested that it might be a change of government in Washington, rather than Havana, that could make the difference for Cubans. "There are many in my generation who believe the embargo is not working, and despite the problems in Cuba, any meaningful change can only happen if all parties want it," he says. "America has tried to be tough, but the embargo and the travel ban have hurt the people of Cuba, not the leadership. It's time to talk."

On the campaign trail, the two Democratic presidential candidates each put out statements within hours of Castro's announcement. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was more explicit in suggesting substantive change to US policy.

"If the Cuban leadership begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change, the United States must be prepared to begin taking steps to normalize relations and to ease the embargo of the last five decades," he said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York stuck to more general comments, favoring "an active policy" that advances the cause of democracy in Cuba.

"As president, I will engage our partners in Latin America and Europe who have a strong stake in seeing a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, and who want very much for the United States to play a constructive role to that end," Senator Clinton said.

The presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, issued a statement lamenting that "freedom for the Cuban people is not yet at hand."

"We must press the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally, to legalize all political parties, labor unions, and free media, and to schedule internationally monitored elections," he said.

"Cuba's transition to democracy is inevitable," Senator McCain also said. "America can and should help hasten the sparking of freedom in Cuba. The Cuban people have waited long enough."

Richard Luscombe contributed to this report from Miami.