By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Normalized relations with Cuba will give the United States its best chance to influence the communist-ruled island, President Barack Obama said on Friday, and he urged Congress to ease the U.S. economic embargo against Havana.
Obama, who announced on Wednesday that Washington was restoring diplomatic relations with Havana, said the historic end of decades of hostility between the two countries would not bring quick changes but ultimately would lead to greater freedom for the Cuban people.
"What I know deep in my bones is that if you've done the same thing for 50 years and nothing has changed you should try something different," Obama told reporters in an end-of-year news conference, referring to Washington's longheld policy of trying to force Cuba to change by isolating it.
"This gives us an opportunity for a different outcome," he said. "Because suddenly, Cuba is open to the world in ways that it has not been before."
In addition to announcing the United States will reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama also said on Wednesday his administration will undertake a series of measures to ease restrictions on commerce, transportation and banking.
But the biggest obstacle to normal ties with Cuba is a more than 50-year economic embargo that is enshrined in law, most notably in the Helms-Burton act passed in 1996, and that would have to be lifted by Congress.
Republicans, who will control both chambers of Congress in January after their midterm election gains last month, have vowed to block any effort to ease the embargo and say they will try to slow the normalization by blocking funds for an embassy and the confirmation of an ambassador.
Obama said he would be willing to weigh in with Congress but he expected the debate over ending the embargo would unfold over time.
"I think that ultimately we need to go ahead and pull down the embargo, which I think has been self-defeating in advancing the aims that we're interested in. But I don't anticipate that that happens right away," he 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."
Critics of Obama's policy shift say he is rewarding President Raul Castro even though Cuba's one-party system remains in place.
NO PRESIDENTIAL VISITS YET
Obama said better relations with Cuba would not lead to an overnight improvement in Havana's human rights record, or to a presidential visit to Cuba, or an invitation to Castro to visit Washington.
But over time, he said, normalizing relations "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."
While Cuba and the United States will still have differences that will strain the relationship, Washington will now be able to talk to Havana, he said.
"The whole point of normalizing relations is that it gives us a greater opportunity to have influence with that government," he said.
Obama, 53, said he was a young man so "I imagine at some point in my life I will have a chance to visit Cuba."
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Chris Reese)