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Candidates: Release Cuban political prisoners

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain called for the release of political prisoners in Cuba following Fidel Castro's resignation Tuesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says the U.S. should seek ways to encourage democratic reforms in Cuba now that Fidel Castro has resigned.

Speaking in a diner in Ohio, Clinton says the U.S. needs a president that will work to gather international support in pushing Cuba to become a democracy. Clinton says she would do so as president.

Clinton is also joining rival Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain in the call for political prisoners in Cuba to be released.

Castro's resignation "should mark the end of a dark era in Cuba's history. ... Fidel Castro's stepping down is an essential first step, but it is sadly insufficient in bringing freedom to Cuba," Democratic Sen. Barack Obama said in a statement.

"Cuba's future should be determined by the Cuban people and not by an anti-democratic successor regime," Obama said. "The prompt release of all prisoners of conscience wrongly jailed for standing up for the basic freedoms too long denied to the Cuban people would mark an important break with the past. It's time for these heroes to be released."

Obama also urged that the United State be prepared to take steps to normalize relations with Cuba and to ease the trade embargo of the last five decades if the Cuban leadership "begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change."

Clinton, speaking at a roundtable in Parma, Ohio, told the audience, "I think this provides a great opportunity for the people of Cuba. I'm hoping that the new leadership will take steps to move Cuba toward democracy, release political prisoners, lift a lot of the oppressive burdens that have prevented the Cuban people from really having the kind of future that they deserve to have.:

Republican Sen. John McCain also underscored that "freedom for the Cuban people is not yet at hand" despite Castro's resignation.

"We must press the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally, to legalize all political parties, labor unions and free media, and to schedule internationally monitored elections," McCain said in a statement.

"Cuba's transition to democracy is inevitable; it is a matter of when not if. With the resignation of Fidel Castro, the Cuban people have an opportunity to move forward and continue pushing for the moment that they will truly be free. America can and should help hasten the sparking of freedom in Cuba. The Cuban people have waited long enough."

The ailing, 81-year-old Castro resigned as Cuba's president after nearly a half-century in power. His 76-year-old brother Raul, who has hinted at political reforms, has been ruling in his place since June 2006.

NBC News contributed to this story.