White House

Obama says Cuba deal will eventually help ‘hermetically sealed’ island

President Obama speaks, Dec. 19, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
President Obama speaks, Dec. 19, 2014, in Washington, D.C. TNS

President Barack Obama said Friday that Cuba remained “a regime that represses its people,” but he predicted that the thawing of relations after more than half a century will usher in change on the island.

At a year-end White House news conference, Obama wouldn’t say how soon he expects the government in Havana to accept democratic reforms, but he said his surprise decision this week to normalize diplomatic relations will do more than isolation to make a difference.

“What I know deep in my bones is that 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,” the president said. “This gives an opportunity for a different outcome.”

He said he didn’t expect the broader economic embargo, which only Congress can lift, to be changed anytime soon.

“I don’t anticipate that that happens right away,” Obama said. ‘I think people are going to want to see how does this move forward before there’s any serious debate about whether or not we would make major shifts in the embargo.’

He downplayed the likelihood that he’d visit Cuba before he leaves office in January 2017.

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

Still, he noted, “I’m a fairly young man, so I imagine that at some point in my life, I will have the opportunity to visit Cuba and enjoy interacting with the Cuban people.”

Congressional Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have accused the administration of rewarding the Castro regime without requiring anything, including releasing political prisoners or improving its human rights record.

Obama said he “shares concerns” about the Cuban government. But he argued that change could come because Cuba will be “open to the world in ways that it has not been before,” including hosting more American travelers. Cuba has also said it will increase Internet access.

“Over time, that chips away at this hermetically sealed society,” Obama said. “I think it’ll happen in fits and starts, but through engagement we have a better chance of bringing about change than we would have otherwise.”

He noted that Cuba’s economy “doesn’t work” and relies on oil subsidies from other countries that can’t be sustained. “The more Cuban people see what’s possible, the more interested they are going to be in change,” he said.

He didn’t say he’d received any assurances from the Cuban government that it wouldn’t sabotage the deal, as it has with past presidents. Instead he asked a reporter for specifics.

After President Jimmy Carter extended an olive branch to Cuba in the late 1970s, then-President Fidel Castro unleashed the 1980 Mariel boatlift, creating a major crisis for the administration. As President Bill Clinton tried to improve ties, the Castro regime shot down two Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996 that were helping Cuban refugees lost at sea.

Obama questioned whether the shootdown had been linked to Clinton’s overtures, and noted that this time is different because both presidents agreed to move toward normalizing relations.

Still, he added, he can’t rule out that Cuba will take actions the U.S. finds troubling.

“But that’s true of a lot of countries out there where we have an embassy,” he said. “And the whole point of normalizing relations is that it gives us a greater opportunity to have influence with that government than not.”

Obama said the name of former President Fidel Castro had come up only once in his phone call with President Raul Castro, the former leader’s brother. Obama said he’d apologized to Raul Castro for giving a long statement at the top of their call.

He said Castro had told him, “ ‘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.’ ”

After Raul Castro spoke for twice as long as Obama had, he said, he told the Cuban, “Obviously, it runs in the family.”

An upbeat Obama also took a victory lap at the news conference for an improving U.S. economy.

“There is no doubt that we can enter into the new year with renewed confidence that America’s making significant strides where it counts,” the president said, his remarks coming just hours before he left for Hawaii for a holiday break.

Facing his last years in office with a wholly Republican-led Congress, Obama sought to cast off the lame duck label, saying he was excited about his prospects for his final two years.

“I’m certainly not going to be stopping for a minute in the effort to make life better for ordinary Americans,” he said.

“My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter. And I’m looking forward to it.”