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U.S.: No plan to reach out to Raul Castro

Debate begins on level of U.S. efforts to foster democracy in Cuba

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Cuban-American Sen. Mel Martinez emigrated 48 years ago as part of Operation Peter Pan.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House said Tuesday that the administration has no plans to reach out to Raul Castro, who has temporarily replaced his brother, Cuban President Fidel Castro, due to health problems.

"The thing we want to do is to continue to assure the people of Cuba that we stand ready to help," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters.

Asked whether he believes the Cuban president is dead, Snow said, "There is no reason to believe that."

He blamed Cuba's "closed society" for a paucity of information.

Information about Castro's condition is coming from third parties and by monitoring Cuban media, which on Tuesday night reported that Castro himself said that his health is "stable" and that he is in "good spirits." (Full story)

Also Tuesday, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez said that the United States is prepared to offer the Cuban people help in transitioning from communism to democracy after Castro.

"We want to let the people of Cuba know that we affirm our commitment," Gutierrez said during a speech at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

"When a transition government committed to democracy is in place, we will provide aid in areas such as food and medicine, economic recovery, and free and fair elections."

Gutierrez, who emigrated from Havana in 1960, made his comments the day after Castro, 79, announced he was to undergo intestinal surgery and would temporarily cede power to his brother Raul, 75.

Gutierrez said the Cuban people, not the United States, would lead any changes on the island.

"The United States and our citizens pose no threat to the security and homes of the Cuban people," he said.

President Bush, he added, understands that "the future of Cuba is in the hands of the Cubans."

But Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said it was not clear that the administration was doing enough.

"I hope that the administration is working with allies and others to prepare for an easier transition than might otherwise occur," Dodd told reporters.

Dodd urged the administration to get busy "planning and thinking what can be done, rather than just sitting back and watching this unfold."

A Republican critic of President Bush's trade embargo and travel restrictions to Cuba, Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, said the United States has put itself in no position to help, regardless of Castro's condition.

"We are more distant now than we ever have been from the Cubans who could pursue the kind of change that we would like to see," the member of the House International Relations Committee said in a written statement.

"There is a widespread misconception that, as soon as Castro is gone, the U.S. will be able to aid and assist a transition," Flake said.

"But with Castro's brother in place and several unreasonable conditions in U.S. law to be met, the U.S. will be on the sidelines while the rest of the democratic world engages in reform efforts."

Senator welcomes news

Another Cuban-born U.S. politician, Sen. Mel Martinez, welcomed the report of Castro's surgery.

"My hope is that there will be an opportunity for voices of freedom to be heard in Cuba, that this could begin a moment of transformation and transition to a better life and a better day," the Republican from Florida told reporters.

Martinez described his reaction to Monday's report that Castro is ill as "intensely emotional."

Martinez said he is not privy to inside information about the Cuban leader's condition, but that did not stop him from speculating that the leader is either gravely ill or dead.

"Probably, the transfer of power would not have occurred were he not in very serious condition," said Martinez, who came to the United States more than 48 years ago at age 15.

But a U.S. intelligence official said he does not believe claims that Castro has died.

The message seems to be: "The guy will be back in some capacity," the official said. "There is no reason to believe this is more serious."

Martinez, who in 2003 was appointed by President Bush to serve as co-chairman of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, said the United States has a plan to prevent any mass migration "in either direction."

He added that in the event of a change of power it would be important to keep any outside forces from interfering with Cuban affairs, including Venezuela and the United States.

"This is a matter for the Cuban people to resolve," he said. "But I think it is also important for us that we be available to listen to voices within Cuba that may speak a different tune."

Martinez said he hopes that there are some people within the Cuban government "who have maybe wished secretly or privately that there be a different tune for the Cuban people."

Martinez said he is not optimistic that Castro's brother and heir-apparent would be among those. He described Raul Castro, the head of the Cuban military, as "not well-liked, without charisma."

'The time has come'

A State Department spokesman called Raul Castro's ascension to power, even if temporary, "a continuing denial of the Cuban people's rights to freely choose who will lead them."

The officials said the U.S. policy was outlined in a report last month by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, "which is to support a hastened transition of democracy to Cuba through free and fair elections."

In Miami, Florida, the home of the anti-Castro exile movement, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart told reporters he was speaking for the pro-democracy movement in Cuba in calling on Cubans in their home country to engage in a campaign of civil disobedience against the Castro government.

"We knew he couldn't hold back history forever, but now history is beginning again," the Republican said. "The time has come."

But Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat and a fifth-generation Floridian, was restrained.

"We've been through this before," Nelson said in a written statement. "So we don't know whether this really is the beginning of the end. But let's hope it is. Let's hope it's over for the dictator. Then we can move forward toward a free and democratic Cuba."

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