Reacting to Fidel Castro's resignation, Democrat Barack Obama was the only presidential candidate Tuesday who broached the idea of ending the trade embargo that has defined U.S. policy toward Cuba for nearly half a century.
Obama, along with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain, all seized on Castro's departure to call for sweeping democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners.
But Obama added: ``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.''
The Illinois senator's mention of the embargo reflects a subtle but noteworthy policy difference between him the other presidential contenders. Sens. Clinton of New York and McCain of Arizona were less specific about how the United States might respond to signs of change in Cuba.
''I would say to the new leadership, the people of the United States are ready to meet you if you move forward towards the path of democracy, with real, substantial reforms,'' Clinton said in a statement.
Obama's willingness to go one step further reflects what his campaign describes as his fresh approach to international diplomacy and, alternately, what critics call an inexperienced and even dangerous world view.
''Sen. Obama seems to want to enter into dialogue with every America-hating dictator around the globe without preconditions, and that's not Senator McCain's view,'' said McCain's director of foreign policy, Randy Scheunemann.
Obama supported the ''normalization of relations with Cuba'' when he was a U.S. Senate candidate in 2003. More recently, he has described the embargo as a necessary bargaining chip but called for lifting restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to visit the island or send money to family.
Clinton has said she would support ending limits on remittances but not travel, though she did vote with Obama in 2005 -- unsuccessfully -- to ease restrictions on family travel in ``humanitarian cases.''
McCain supports President Bush's policy, which limits Cuban-Americans to visiting their relatives on the island once every three years and caps remittances at $100 per month.
His Republican opponent, Mike Huckabee, said in a statement: ``Until Fidel Castro is dead there can be no significant movement towards reform in Cuba. ''
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report.