seen shifting closer to other American states

A transfer of power in Cuba to acting President Raul Castro could pave the way for a debate on its return to the Organization of American States, the head of the hemispheric forum said on Monday.

"There has been some change ... that leads us to think that there is a transition, a certain shift in the balance of power in Cuba," Jose Miguel Insulza told reporters when asked if Cuba was drawing closer to the rest of the Americas.

Cuba was expelled from the OAS in 1961 as Cuban leader Fidel Castro steered the island toward communism.

Castro handed over power to his younger brother, Raul, in July last year, after undergoing intestinal surgery and has not appeared in public since.

Cuban officials say Castro, who will turn 81 in August, is recovering well from his illness, but have not indicated whether he will retake the helm of government.

This month, Cuba announced municipal elections in October that will end early next year in the renewal of the Council of State.

It remains to be seen whether Fidel Castro will continue as its president and Cuba's head of state. He has held the post since the one-party system was set up 30 years ago.

"I would not dare forecast anything, or say how deep these changes are or where are they are leading to. But I do think it is going to be possible to re-establish a long overdue dialogue about Cuba in our organization," Insulza said.

Since the end of the Cold War, most Latin American nations have restored ties to Havana, with the exception of El Salvador.

With the rise of leftist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Cuba's Communist government today enjoys the closest relations with Latin America since Cuban leader Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution.

Canada, which joined the OAS in 1990, is the largest foreign investor in Cuba and the main source of its tourists.

The United States has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba since 1962 and opposes readmitting Havana to the OAS.

Sanctions were tightened under the Bush administration, which rejects a succession from one Castro brother to another, calling it a change from "one dictator to another."

Insulza said he does not want "to reopen old wounds" and that a discussion about the return of Cuba to the OAS would only take place if all member states agreed.

"If any member country does not think that it's the right time to change our stance toward Cuba, I'm sorry but I won't impose that," Insulza said.

(Published by Reuters, July 17, 2007)

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