( AFP )- The appointment of Raul Castro as the new president of Cuba on Sunday sets out the "possibility" for change on the communist island, the top US diplomat for Latin America, Tom Shannon, told AFP.
"There is a possibility and potential for change in Cuba, but those changes will have to be born inside Cuba," Shannon said in Spanish, adding the historical changes taking place in Cuba were "significant."
But he repeated Washington's insistence that the United States would not lift its embargo imposed on the Caribbean island in 1962 until there was a transition to democracy.
The US diplomat said the selection of Raul Castro as head of state on Sunday "formalized something that has been a fact for 19 months," referring to Fidel Castro handing over power provisionally in July 2006 for health reasons.
He said "it is the first time in modern Cuban history that this country had had a change in its political leaders."
Earlier, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on the Cuban leadership to initiate a democratic transition and uphold human rights.
"We urge the Cuban government to begin a process of peaceful, democratic change by releasing all political prisoners, respecting human rights, and creating a clear pathway towards free and fair elections," Rice said in a statement.
She said that "at this significant moment in Cuba's history, we reaffirm our belief that the Cuban people have an inalienable right to participate in an open and comprehensive dialogue about their country's future, free of fear and repression, and to choose their leaders in democratic elections."
Cuba's changes in leadership have become an issue in the US presidential election, with Democratic front-runner Barack Obama calling US policy toward Havana a "failure" and urging a relaxation US restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba and sending money to relatives to Cuba.
Obama said at a debate on Thursday he would be ready to meet as president with Raul Castro without preconditions. Former first lady Hillary Clinton said she would first demand a change in Cuba's human rights policy before any meeting while the leading Republican contender John McCain criticized Obama's stance as naive.
More than 100 lawmakers in the House of Representatives have written to Rice urging a change in US trade policy.
"For five decades, US policy has tried economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to force changes in Cuba's government," the lawmakers wrote. "The policy has not worked."
Business leaders have also joined calls for a change in Washington's approach.
But during his tenure President George W. Bush has tightened the embargo against Cuba and rejected two offers of dialogue from Raul Castro.