Obama: No quick end to embargo on Cuba

Updated: 2014-12-20 17:35


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Obama: No quick end to embargo on Cuba

US President Barack Obama gestures as he answers a question during his end of the year press conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, December 19, 2014. Obama and his family plan to depart Washington later in the day to spend the holidays in Hawaii.[Photo/Agencies]

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama says he doesn't expect the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba to bring overnight change on the island, a quick end to the US economic embargo or the likelihood that he will soon visit the communist nation.

"This is still a regime that represses its people," Obama said Friday at a year-end news conference two days after the historic announcement that he was moving to end the half century of Cold War acrimony with Havana. He said he hopes to visit Cuba at some point in his life but that he is not at the stage yet of going or hosting Cuban President Raul Castro in Washington.

Instead, Obama said the change in policy should give the US a greater opportunity to have influence on Cuba and reflects his belief that 50 years of isolation haven't worked.

"We will be in a position to respond to whatever action they take the same way we do with a whole range of countries around the world when they do things that we think are wrong," Obama said.

He said the four-decade-old embargo should end but he didn't anticipate it soon. Lifting the embargo must be done by Congress and Obama said it will likely be a while before US lawmakers take up that debate.

Obama said longtime leader Fidel Castro's name came up only briefly in his phone call this week with Castro's brother and successor. Obama said he opened the call with about 15 minutes of an opening statement, then apologized for talking so long.

Obama said the Cuban president responded, "You're still a young man and you still have a chance to break Fidel's record. He once spoke for seven hours straight."

Obama said Raul Castro then delivered an opening statement at least twice as long as his. "I was able to say it runs in the family."

Cuba was one of many issues that Obama addressed concerning a year he saw as basically positive, despite a series of foreign policy crisis and major defeats for his Democratic party in midterm elections.

In fact, Obama declared 2014 "a breakthrough year for America," putting aside the fits and starts of the past 12 months to focus on achievements and the prospect of compromise with his political foes who are taking control of Congress.

The news conference came at the end of what Obama titled his "Year of Action," one in which Congress failed to take up most of his agenda and he turned to looking for ways to act on his own, most recently on immigration. Republicans cried foul at that tactic, accusing Obama of overstepping his authority.

On Friday, the president acknowledged many unanticipated crises in the past year but said he enters 2015 with renewed confidence that "America is making strides where it counts."

He ticked off the year's improvements, citing lower unemployment and a rising number of Americans covered by health insurance. On climate change, he touted his own executive action and a Chinese agreement to combat global warming. And he said America's combat mission in Afghanistan would soon be over.

"Take any metric that you want, America's resurgence is real. We are better off," said Obama, who spoke before leaving for vacation in Hawaii.

He will return to Washington with both congressional chambers under Republican control - a first since he's been in the White House - and attention turning to the 2016 race to replace him. While much of his agenda will face a dead end on Capitol Hill, Obama aides say he'll look for areas of compromise on issues like trade and taxes and continue to act on his own where he can.

Obama said he has been speaking to House Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about how they can make progress, including tax reform.

"They are serious about wanting to get things done. The tax area is one area where we can get things done," Obama said, adding he wanted to see more fairness and simplicity.

But Obama also warned Republicans that he would block efforts to erode his health care law or further water down banking regulation enacted in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

In another potential area of conflict, Obama downplayed the benefits of building the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, arguing it would not lower gasoline prices and that more jobs would be created by repairing America's infrastructure.

He said the pipeline would mainly benefit Canadian oil companies that need to get Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico. He said the pipeline is "not even a nominal benefit for US consumers."

McConnell has said it would be the first bill taken up under the new Republican-majority Senate. But environmentalists have made opposition to its approval a priority.