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Obama calls for direct talks with Cuba

MIAMI – Democratic Sen. Barack Obama called for “direct diplomacy” with communist Cuba when he addressed a prominent Cuban-American organization Friday in a bid to woo a Republican-leaning constituency that is one of the keys to presidential victory in the state.

In a lunchtime speech to the Cuban American National Foundation in downtown Miami, Obama offered a new Cuban policy approach to an audience accustomed to presidential candidates coming to show solidarity but not to challenge the long-standing isolation of the island’s dictatorship.

“Now I know what the easy thing is to do for American politicians … every four years, they come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington, and nothing changes in Cuba,” said Obama. “After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time, I believe, to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”

He repeated previous statements that if elected president, he would immediately lift the limits on Cuban-Americans who want to travel to Cuba or send remittances to family on the island. And he spoke about his often-criticized willingness to meet with Cuban leader Raul Castro.

“There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda,” Obama said. “And as president, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

The luncheon, a celebration of Cuban Independence Day, drew nearly 900 people to a ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel.

The GOP launched several pre-emptive attacks, including a memo headlined “Obama: Weak on Cuba,” and an Internet video highlighting what it said was a flip-flop on the embargo. Obama advocated lifting sanctions when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, but now says the embargo should stay in place.

Cuban-American U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., assailed Obama in a prearranged phone call with reporters.

“Mr. Obama has a lot of explaining to do over the next few months in Florida,” Diaz-Balart said, “to try to assure people that his inexperience and naiveté are not as worrisome as they seem.”