WASHINGTON – Cuba without Fidel Castro as president should move toward "peaceful, democratic change" and allow Cubans the chance to become "masters of their own lives," the Bush administration said Sunday.
"The Cuban people, facing the legacy of decades of tyranny, merit our solidarity and support as they seek to construct a brighter future," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement before Cuban lawmakers selected Castro's brother, Raul, as his successor. The ailing 81-year-old Fidel Castro said last week he would not accept another term as president.
"We urge the Cuban government to begin a process of peaceful, democratic change by releasing all political prisoners, respecting human rights and creating a clear pathway toward free and fair elections," Rice said in a statement released in Washington while she traveled in Asia.
Other countries should help the Cuban people with the transition to democracy, Rice said.
Raul Castro, 76, has headed Cuba's caretaker government for 19 months, since Fidel announced he had intestinal surgery and was provisionally ceding his powers.
"At this significant moment in Cuba's history, we reaffirm our belief that the Cuban people have an inalienable right to participate in an open and comprehensive dialogue about their country's future, free of fear and repression and to choose their leaders in democratic elections," Rice said.
"We support their efforts to obtain a voice in their national destiny and their desire to gain access to the resources and opportunities necessary to become masters of their own lives, enhance the well-being of their families and achieve their God-given potential," according to the statement.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the U.S. "should be preparing (for) what that transition is going to look like." Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., suggested establishing mail service and easing travel restrictions for family visits. He did not favor lifting America's five-decade trade embargo "until there is a response to political prisoners, all the things that are wrong with this Castro administration."
But engaging Cuba in trade is a way to end "an outdated, outmoded, unrealistic, irrelevant policy," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "It's always been nonsensical to me about this argument, `Well, it's a communist country, it's a communist regime.' What do people think Vietnam is? Or the People's Republic of China? ... We trade with them. We have relations. Great powers engage. Great powers are not afraid. Great powers trade."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, raised the possibility of talks with Raul Castro.
"If we can change the Sunni chieftains in Iraq, some of which were helping the insurgents against us, maybe talking to someone who seems to be a hard-core enemy doesn't hurt anything, and it might help," she said.
Hagel was on "Late Edition" on CNN, while Biden and Hutchison appeared on "This Week" on ABC.