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

Update: December, 19/2014 - 10:18

WASHINGTON – A US visit by Cuban President Raul Castro is a possibility, the White House has said, 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, on Thursday 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 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Obama, who said Washington will move to "end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests," on Wednesday raised the previously unthinkable possibility of his visiting the island.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 on 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."

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.

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. — AFP

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