U.S. might take more steps to relax Cuba embargo

havana-live-embargoHAVANA, Nov 4  (REUTERS) U.S. President Barack Obama could further relax the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday, adding that Washington would not first demand human rights progress from Havana.

Obama has twice used executive authority to ease the embargo as part of his opening to Cuba, and more such regulatory changes could come if Cuba can absorb those made to date, said David Thorne, a senior adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry.

“We are making progress. We are making regulatory changes. We’ll make more,” Thorne told Reuters in an interview.

Obama has eased travel restrictions on Americans, authorized telecommunications companies to operate in Cuba, and permitted trade with Cuba’s small but growing private sector, among other measures.

But Cuba has been slow to embrace U.S. business, citing its inability to use dollars or receive U.S. credits under the embargo. In one notable exception, Cuban state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa on Monday signed a roaming agreement with U.S. carrier Sprint Corp.

“The pace is really going to be set by the Cubans and we are satisfied with how they want to do this,” said Thorne, who did not specify what changes might come.

Obama reversed the course of 10 previous presidents last December when he agreed with Cuban President Raul Castro to end Cold War-era animosity and restore diplomatic relations.

Obama has also called on the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress to end the trade embargo, in place since 1962, but legislation to lift it has stalled.

Opponents of detente say the United States should continue to pressure Cuba over its one-party political system and repression of political opponents.

Thorne said Washington was not expecting rapid change on human rights.

“As in other parts of the world, we are really trying to also say: Let’s find out how we can work together and not always say that human rights are the first things that we have to fix before anything else,” Thorne said.

Cuban police held 1,093 political activists in short-term detention in October, the highest monthly total this year, according to the dissident Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Thorne, on a three-day visit to Havana, met with Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca and Cubans working in the private sector as small business owners or in cooperatives. He also attended the inaugural meeting of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, an initiative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by David Gregorio)