Obama Says Opening to Cuba Will Take Years To Pay off

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U.S. President Barack Obama listens to a question during a news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Dec. 19, 2014.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama said the full opening of relations between Cuba and the U.S. may take years, even as he offered assurances the new U.S. stance will bring change to the island nation’s closed society.

Despite vehement criticism from Republican lawmakers and some Democrats, the president said he was confident his reversal of the half-century-long U.S. effort to isolate its Caribbean neighbor 90 miles off the coast of Florida was the right course.

Increasing U.S. travel and trade “chips away at this hermetically sealed society, and I believe offers the best prospect then, of leading to greater freedom, greater self-determination on the part of the Cuban people,” Obama said at a White House news conference Friday before leaving for vacation in Hawaii.

Obama spoke two days after he announced the U.S. would move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century, removing one of the last remnants of the Cold War.

While it represents a major shift in U.S. policy, he said it would be “unrealistic for me to map out” the pace of change in Cuba that he expected would move “in fits and starts.”

Obama also tamped down speculation he would fly to Havana to meet with the country’s president, Raul Castro, saying that a trip to Cuba might only come after he’s left office.

“We’re not at a stage here where me visiting Cuba or President Castro coming to the United States is -- is in the cards,” Obama said. “I don’t know how this relationship will develop over the next several years.”

Castro’s Speech

Castro, in a speech to Cuban parliament today, urged the U.S. to end its embargo, while welcoming the agreement to restore ties. “An important step was taken, but the essential problem of the economic embargo still needs to be solved,” he said, adding that its complete lifting would be a “long and difficult struggle.”

The Cuban leader, whose older brother Fidel Castro ruled the country until 2008, also said that “Cuba will never give up the ideals it has fought for” and asked the U.S. to respect its political system.

A full lifting of the U.S. embargo on trade and travel would require action by Congress, where Cuban-American lawmakers have denounced Obama’s action as a capitulation to the Castro regime. Some Republicans, led by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a potential contender for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination, say they will work to block Obama from normalizing relations with Cuba.

Policy Change

“I will certainly weigh in” on behalf of legislation lifting the embargo, Obama said. “But I don’t anticipate that that happens right away.”

Obama’s policy change was the culmination of more than a year of secret negotiations that involved an intercession by Pope Francis, the facilitation of the Canadian government and an extraordinary telephone conversation between the U.S. leader and the Cuban president.

He punctuated his remarks Friday with a light-hearted joke about former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, long a pariah in American politics. He said that in speaking to Raul Castro, his brother Fidel came up only once. After making introductory remarks lasting 15 minutes, Obama said, he apologized to the Cuban president for the length of his remarks.

“Don’t worry about it, Mr. President. You’re still a young man, and you have still the chance to break Fidel’s record. He once spoke seven hours straight,” Obama said Raul Castro told him. “And then President Castro proceeded to deliver his own preliminary remarks that lasted at least twice as long as mine.”

“Then,” he added, “I was able to say, ‘Obviously, it runs in the family.’”

Shifting Alliances

The embargo of Cuba, first imposed in 1960 after the Cuban revolution and tightened in later years, has persisted in part because of the influence of the Cuban-American exile community in Florida. Generational shifts have reduced support for the embargo, though Obama’s moves drew criticism from some Cuban-American lawmakers.

Cuba also is confronting geopolitical shifts as its longtime patrons, Russia and Venezuela, are being squeezed by plummeting oil prices.

Within the deal, the two governments wrapped the release of American aid worker Alan Gross and the exchange of a U.S. spy being held in a Cuban jail for three Cuban intelligence agents. Cuba also agreed to release 53 people the U.S. considers political prisoners, U.S. officials said.

While Obama’s changes won’t open Cuba to U.S. tourism, they will make it easier for U.S. businesses to export to Cuba’s construction, telecommunications and agricultural sectors. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is planning a trade mission to the island.