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US-Cuba ties thaw, White House open to Castro visit

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) greets Cuba's President Raul Castro before giving his speech at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg.

[WASHINGTON] A US visit by Cuban President Raul Castro is not out of the question, the White House said Thursday a day after he and US President Barack Obama announced a historic bilateral rapprochement.

With developments proceeding apace, a high-level US diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, revealed she will travel to Havana in late January for the first direct talks to "begin the process of restoration of diplomatic relations." But amid celebrations on Havana's streets and plaudits ringing out from China to Chile over the prospects of burying a final vestige of the Cold War, American lawmakers smothered prospects of any rapid roll-back of the trade embargo at the heart of the dispute.

Obama, who said Washington will move to "end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests," on Wednesday raised the previously unthinkable possibility of his visiting the island.

When reporters Thursday broached the subject of a Castro visit to the United States, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: "I wouldn't rule out a visit from President Castro." Earnest cited Obama's trips to China and Myanmar (Burma), and the visits by those nations' leaders to Washington, to argue that engaging with such figures "can actually serve as a useful way to shine a spotlight on the shortcomings of other country's records as it relates to human rights." Beijing meanwhile said it hoped the US would lift its embargo on Cuba as quickly as possible.

But that harsh cornerstone of US policy is here to stay, at least for the near future.

"This Congress is not going to lift the embargo," asserted Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.

He blasted Obama's moves as "a victory for oppression" that would reward a dictatorship, and said he would "use every tool at our disposal in the majority to unravel as many of these changes as possible." Experts agree that, in addition to government agencies signing off on rolling back the embargo, congressional legislation would be needed to repeal laws like the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which tightened prohibitions on US trade with Cuba.

Obama said he would urge Congress to lift the embargo imposed in 1960, while using his presidential authority to advance diplomatic and travel links and ease restrictions on finance.

But the Republicans take full control of Congress in January and, with anger still pulsing over Obama's unilateral immigration action last month, a swift repeal of the embargo is unlikely.

While some backed Obama's move, key Democrats including Senator Robert Menendez and congressman Eliot Engel expressed opposition.

"I believe that Congress must see a greater political opening in Cuba before lifting the embargo," said Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The US embassy in Havana was closed in 1961, two years after rebels led by Fidel Castro ousted president Fulgencio Batista, although a large US interests section still operates.

Funding to re-open an embassy in Havana would require congressional appropriation, and lawmakers like Senator Lindsey Graham say they would seek to block it.

The White House's Earnest said the administration will evaluate whether the structure that houses the interest section could serve initially as the US embassy.

The Cuba breakthrough came after Havana released jailed US contractor Alan Gross and a Cuban who had been held for 20 years for spying for Washington.

Havana also agreed to release 53 political prisoners.

The United States in turn freed three Cuban spies, and Obama said he had instructed the State Department to re-examine its designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Jacobson said that process has already begun, and that the decision must be reached within six months.

The decades-long stand-off was marked by incidents that threatened to send the Cold War to boiling point.

CIA-backed Cuban exiles suffered a bloody defeat in the Bay of Pigs invasion and during the missile crisis US warships blockaded the island.

The embargo hurt the Caribbean island's economy, but it failed to unseat the communist government led by the Castro brothers.

Experts said easing the embargo would breathe life into Cuba's moribund economy, which has seen bilateral US trade shrivel from US$962 million in 2008 to US$401 million last year.

A 2014 report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics predicted that two-way merchandise trade could surpass US$10 billion annually once the embargo is lifted.

Obama now has only two years left in office. Fidel Castro, who has had a colossal presence in Cuba for half a century but was conspicuously absent from the detente sealed by his brother, is 88 and ailing, while brother Raul is 83.

With their window for action closing, both sides were under pressure to make a gesture.