Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said in tonight's nationally televised debate that he would meet with Raul Castro following "preparation'' of an agenda that called for the release of political prisoners, human rights, and a free press.
Castro is viewed as a potential reformer who has been hamstrung by his tyrannical older brother. Fidel Castro announced Tuesday that he would not seek reelection as president, leaving Raul as his likely successor.
"I do think that it's important for the United States not just to talk to its friends, but also to talk to its enemies,'' Obama said. He added later: "This moment, this opportunity when Fidel Castro has finally stepped down, I think, is one that we should try to take advantage of.''
The Illinois senator's statement is likely to be scorned by hardline exiles in Miami-Dade who say any gesture amounts to coddling a communist dictatorship, but welcomed by moderate Cuban-Americans who say the Bush administration's unyielding posture has failed to generate any signs of democracy. Rival Hillary Clinton, a senator from New York, said she was not willing to go as far as Obama.
"There has been this difference between us over when and whether the president should offer a meeting, without preconditions, with those with whom we do not have diplomatic relations,'' she said. "And it should be part of a process, but I don't think it should be offered in the beginning. Because I think that undermines the capacity for us to actually take the measure of somebody like Raul Castro."