January 19, 2015 / 3:42 PM / 5 years ago

Obama must work with Congress to reform Cuba embargo: policy experts

(Reuters) - On the eve of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address a group of 78 policy experts and former U.S. officials has written to the White House urging the administration to work with Congress to update Cuba legislation to reflect “21st century realities.”

U.S. President Barack Obama answers a question about the administration's new policy on Cuba after his end of the year press conference in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

While stopping short of calling for an end to the five-decades-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, the letter makes it clear that Congress needs to at the very least reform its Cuba sanctions, which were written into law in 1996.

The letter includes names from across the political spectrum, including Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz, President Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, as well as three former assistant secretaries of state for the Western Hemisphere and a group of prominent Cuban-American leaders.

It follows a similar letter sent in May last year from 46 signers calling on Obama to open up travel and commerce with Cuba, along the lines of measures announced in his new Cuba policy last month.

“We write to commend you on the historic actions you are taking to update America’s policy toward Cuba and Cuban citizens,” the new letter says, titled ‘Support for a new course on Cuba.’

“Our new posture of engagement will advance our national interests and our values by empowering the Cuban people’s capacity to work toward a more democratic and prosperous country - conditions that are very much in the U.S. interests,” it adds.

It also calls on Obama “to work with Congress to update the legislative framework with regard to Cuba so that it, too, reflects 21st century realities.”

The U.S. and Cuba will hold historic “normalization” talks later this week in Havana designed to restore diplomatic relations and reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana, as announced n Obama’s new Cuba policy on Dec. 17.

U.S. officials announced new regulations on Friday to ease travel and commerce with Cuba, but the embargo legislation - The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act, also known as Helms-Burton after its authors - still makes it illegal for Americans to own property in Cuba or travel there freely for tourism.

The letter also encourages the Obama administration to “continue to call on Havana to respect the human rights of the Cuban people,” including at an upcoming Summit of the Americas in April where both Cuba and the U.S. will attend together for the first time.

Writing by David Adams; Editing by James Dalgleish and Chizu Nomiyama

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