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Obama promises Cuba policy shift, attacks McCain

MIAMI (Reuters) - Democrat Barack Obama said on Friday he would he would pick the time and place for direct diplomatic talks with Cuba as U.S. president and criticized Republican John McCain for embracing failed policies.

Obama, an Illinois senator who is leading New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the race for their party’s White House nomination, has taken heat for saying he was willing to meet with the leaders of countries hostile to the United States, including countries such as Cuba and Iran.

McCain, in Miami on Tuesday, criticized Obama’s proposals and vowed to maintain a strict economic embargo on Cuba until its communist government releases political prisoners, grants basic freedoms and schedules internationally monitored elections.

Both candidates are courting Florida’s influential Cuban-American community in a state that will be crucial to victory in November’s general election.

Obama said McCain had distorted his position.

“John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raul Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering,” Obama said.

“That’s not what I said. John McCain knows it.”

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Obama said McCain had embraced President George W. Bush’s policies, which would not advance freedom in Cuba.

“That’s the political posture that John McCain has chosen, and all it shows is that you can’t take his so-called straight talk seriously.”

The Illinois senator called for direct diplomacy with the communist island and, without saying whom he would meet with, pledged to lead that charge as president.

“It is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda,” he said. “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.”

Obama said he would maintain the Cuban embargo but would offer to start normalizing relations with the communist country if it released all political prisoners.

The McCain campaign accused him of shifting his stance.

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“By changing his position in front of Cuban-Americans to support the embargo that he used to oppose, Barack Obama is engaging in the same political expediency that he railed against in his speech,” McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said.

“This same tired type of political flexibility shows Barack Obama’s weak leadership on an important issue.”

Obama promised to lift restrictions on family travel and money transfers to the island.

Obama, who sprinkled his speech with Spanish words and phrases, laid out other policies for Latin America.

He called for a regional energy partnership to develop alternative sources of fuel and more diplomatic efforts throughout the hemisphere to promote democracy.

Editing by Doina Chiacu