WASHINGTON – Two days after ending a half-century-long diplomatic freeze with Cuba, President Barack Obama warned Friday that the pace of reform on the communist island nation will be uncertain but that change is inevitable.
In a wide-ranging news conference that also touched on the Sony Pictures cyberattack from North Korea and the future of his relations with Congress, Obama was repeatedly asked about his decision to begin bringing America’s Cold War-era policy regarding Cuba to a close – especially given the human rights practices of the Cuban government.
“This is still a regime that represses its people,” Obama acknowledged, arguing that a new policy of engaging with President Raul Castro will help chip away at the barriers around Cuba’s “hermetically sealed” society and that Cubans will push for change.
“Change is going to come to Cuba,” Obama said. “It has to.”
Obama’s remarks came at his end-of-year press conference, two days after his administration announced his Cuba policy changes timed to coincide with the release of political prisoner Alan Gross from a Cuban prison.
On Wednesday, Obama swept away more than 50 years of official separation between the two countries. His phone conversation with Castro this week was the first time a U.S. president has spoken to a Cuban head of state since the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
On Obama’s orders, Secretary of State John Kerry is at work to begin top-level talks with the Cuban government and to open an American Embassy in Havana. The U.S. is also easing travel restrictions to Cuba and increasing the amount of money that people can send to friends and family on the island.
The ties, the White House believes, will make life better for Cubans living in isolation and poverty.
Critics of the president’s policy believe that it mainly empowers the Castro regime. While U.S. engagement with China and Vietnam has strengthened the economies and improved the daily life of many who live in those countries, they argue, it has also empowered their authoritarian governments.
Raul and Fidel Castro are still the “implacable enemies of the United States,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote in an opinion piece sent by his office Friday. Their goal is to copy Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, Cruz writes, fooled the West by appearing to change while “his authoritarian government consolidated power.”
Obama is finding support from some business leaders and other Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. In his own opinion piece Friday, Paul argued that the experience with China and Vietnam shows that engagement is the best way to “overcome and defeat communism.”
“Communism can’t survive the captivating allure of capitalism,” Paul wrote. “Let’s overwhelm the Castro regime with iPhones, iPads, American cars and American ingenuity.”
Obama said he doesn’t expect lawmakers will soon lift the economic embargo on Cuba that has been in place for decades, but he said he hopes they will eventually do so and predicted a healthy debate in Congress.
“If you’ve done the same thing for 50 years and nothing’s changed, you should try something different if you want a different outcome,” Obama said.
Obama noted that easing travel and the prospect of better telecommunications and Internet access will inevitably change how Cubans live.
Obama also speculated about the possibility that he might be able to work on tax reform with Republicans who take control of Congress in January.
Republicans have said they share the same goal, Obama said, adding that “the devil’s in the details.”
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