Obama: Change won't come overnight to Cuba, no end to embargo or presidential visit soon



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WASHINGTON — Two days after reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama said Friday he doesn't expect the effort to bring overnight change on the island, a quick end to the U.S. economic embargo or the likelihood that he will soon visit the communist nation.

"This is still a regime that represses its people," Obama said at a year-end news conference two days after the historic announcement that he was moving to end the half century of Cold War acrimony with Havana. He said he hopes to visit Cuba at some point in his life but that he is not at the stage yet of going or hosting Cuban President Raul Castro in Washington.

Instead, Obama said the change in policy should give the U.S. a greater opportunity to have influence on Cuba and reflects his belief that 50 years of isolation haven't worked. He said the embargo should end but he didn't anticipate it soon.

"We will be in a position to respond to whatever actions they take, the same way we do with a whole range of countries around the world when they do things we think are wrong," Obama said. "There may be carrots as well as sticks that we can then apply."

On another matter that the U.S. sees as foreign wrongdoing, Obama was asked about the recent hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment and the company's decision not to send out a new movie that North Korea was angrily protesting.

Speaking shortly after the FBI said North Korea was behind the hack, Obama said he felt Sony "made a mistake" in shelving the satirical film about a plot to assassinate North Korea's leader. He said the U.S. would respond to North Korea's action "in a place and manner and time that we choose."

Cuba and North Korea were just two issues that Obama addressed concerning a year he saw as basically positive. In fact he declared 2014 "a breakthrough year for America," putting aside the fits and starts of the past 12 months to focus on achievements and the prospect of compromise with his political foes who are taking control of Congress.

"My presidency is entering the fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter," Obama said before leaving on a two-week vacation to Hawaii.

The news conference came at the end of what Obama titled his "Year of Action," one in which Congress failed to take up most of his agenda and he turned to looking for ways to act on his own. Republicans cried foul at that tactic, accusing Obama of overstepping his authority, and voters didn't seem to think much of the strategy, either, giving the president low marks in public opinion polls.

On Friday, the president acknowledged many unanticipated crises in the past year but said he enters 2015 with renewed confidence that "America is making significant strides where it counts." He said he intends to make sure the economy, government and justice system work for everyone.

"I'm energized," Obama declared, trying to shake off last month's midterm elections that brought crushing losses for his party.

He ticked off the year's improvements, citing lower unemployment and a rising number of Americans covered by health insurance and the historic opening with Cuba. On climate change, the touted his own executive action and a Chinese agreement to combat global warming. He also noted that on Friday the Treasury Department announced it had sold the last investment related to the Wall Street and auto bailouts. And he said America's combat mission in Afghanistan would soon be over.

"Take any metric that you want, America's resurgence is real. We are better off," Obama said.

He will return to Washington with both congressional chambers under Republican control — a first since he's been in the White House — and attention turning to the 2016 race to replace him. While much of his agenda will face a dead end on Capitol Hill, Obama said he'll look for areas of compromise on issues like taxes and continue to act on his own where he can.

He said he has been speaking to House Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about how they can make progress.

"They are serious about wanting to get some things done. The tax area is one area where we can get things done," Obama said. But he cautioned, "The devil's in the details."

His comments weren't all sweetness and light.

Obama warned Republicans that he would block efforts to erode his health care law or further water down banking regulation enacted in the aftermath of the financial crisis. "I'm confident that I'll be able to uphold vetoes of those types of provisions," he said, though he recently signed a major bill that included softening of some bank regulations.

In another potential area of conflict, Obama downplayed the benefits of building the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, arguing it would not lower gasoline prices and that more jobs would be created by repairing America's infrastructure.

He said the pipeline would mainly benefit Canadian oil companies that need to get Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico. He said the pipeline is "not even a nominal benefit for U.S. consumers."

McConnell has said it would be the first bill taken up under the new GOP-majority Senate. But environmentalists have made opposition to its approval a priority.

On Cuba, Obama said longtime leader Fidel Castro's name came up only briefly in his phone call with Castro's brother and successor. Obama said he opened the call with about 15 minutes of an opening statement, then apologized for talking so long.

Obama said President Raul Castro responded, "You're still a young man and you still have a chance to break Fidel's record. He once spoke seven hours straight."

Obama said the Cuban leader then delivered an opening statement at least twice as long as his. "I was able to say, 'Obviously, it runs in the family.'"

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