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 US Presidential Election in Cubans Eye
Many believe any changes the next American administration makes to its Cuba policy will be more important to their happiness than any reforms the island's first new head of state in 49 years may embrace.

A 32-year-old named Pepe was sipping straight rum from a small plastic cup on a bench near Havana's Central Park when asked about his country's new government.

"What about a new U.S. president?" he responded. "Do you really think Obama can win? Will he get rid of the blockade?" he wondered, referring to the U.S. trade embargo on the island.

Seated nearby, his pal predicted that undercurrents of racism and sexism would push McCain to victory in the November election.

"Obama, his skin is like mine, black," the friend said, pointing to the underside of his wrist. "A woman can't win. There's sexism in the United States. Obama can't win because he is black."

Pepe gave just his first name and his friend wouldn't even divulge that. Like many Cubans, both were unnerved about being identified in international media.

Raul Castro assumed Cuba's presidency on Sunday after his ailing brother Fidel said he wasn't well enough to accept another term, ending his hold on near-absolute power dating back to 1959.

Many Cubans hope Raul will advance modest economic openings in the island's communist system. But many also say lifting the U.S. embargo, which has been in place in its current form since 1962, would do far more to reduce shortages of basic products, increase access to small, imported luxuries and generally improve their quality of life.

Ovidio Fernandez, fishing off Havana's Malecon seawall, said Cubans "have to wait and see what happens after the elections in the United States" to know what will happen on Raul Castro's watch.

"Let's see if the blockade ends," the 78-year-old said. "Any change here depends on that."

Washington's trade sanctions prohibit American tourists from visiting the island and ban most U.S.-Cuba trade. McCain, who is considered to have locked up the Republican nomination, has said he sees no reason to lift the embargo unless Cuba embraces Western-style democracy, frees political prisoners and begins "the transition to a free and open society."

Clinton supports the sanctions and says she would refuse to sit down with Raul Castro until he implements political and economic reforms. Obama counters that he would meet with Raul as long as the agenda included human rights, and wants to loosen restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting the island and sending money home to relatives here.

Alone among the three front-runners in the race, Obama also says he would be open to meeting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close Castro ally, without preconditions. Former President Clinton was the last U.S. leader to do so, on the sidelines of a U.N. gathering.

Cubans get free housing, health care and education through college, plus ration cards for food staples. But average monthly state salaries are about $20, and daily life is plagued by shortages that the government and many Cubans blame on the embargo.

"The blockade, that's what really makes it bad for us," said Sara, a 65-year-old retiree. "All three of the candidates in the United States should understand that."

Cubans get steady coverage of the U.S. presidential race from state newspapers and state TV runs nightly news shows discussing the results of key primaries. Commentators faithfully report the outcomes, but also insist repeatedly that U.S. elections are undemocratic because the richest candidates usually win.

Recovering from an undisclosed ailment in a secret location, Fidel Castro has written extensively about the candidates. In an August essay he sarcastically suggested that Clinton and Obama would make "invincible" running-mates in the general election, and this month he denied McCain's claims that Cubans helped the Vietnamese torture U.S. prisoners of war.

About 83 percent of Americans have a negative opinion of Fidel Castro, according to a Gallup survey released Wednesday. Only 5 percent said they view him favorably, according to the poll based on telephone interviews with 2,021 adults Feb. 21-24. It had a margin of error of two percentage points.

The survey also found that 61 percent of Americans favor establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, down six points from December 2006.

Bush administration officials have rejected the idea of talking with Havana or lifting the embargo anytime soon, dismissing the new Cuban president as "Fidel lite." But many Cubans hope Bush's successor will take Raul Castro up on his suggestion that the two countries should improve relations.

"We don't know who will win" in November, said Guilarte Vaquero, a 70-year-old retiree sitting in a park near Havana's Chinatown. "But we're paying close attention."


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