Obama urges Congress to end embargo on Cuba

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US President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 20, 2015

US President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 20, 2015 (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)

Washington (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Tuesday urged lawmakers to prepare the way to ending the half-century embargo on Cuba.

"Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere," Obama told US lawmakers in his State of the Union address.

On the eve of ground-breaking talks in Havana to discuss normalizing diplomatic ties with the communist-run Caribbean island, Obama said there was no more "phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba."

The highest-ranking US delegation to visit Havana since the 1980s will meet Cuban officials for talks on Wednesday and Thursday.

The meeting will be the first since the historic announcements in December by Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro that their countries will normalize ties that broke off in 1961.

Obama told Congress that his administration was "ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn't work for fifty years, it's time to try something new."

He said the shift in US policy "stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people."

"And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo," he added.

He also welcomed Alan Gross, who was freed last month after six years in a Cuban jail, and was exchanged along with a Cuban CIA agent for three Cubans jailed in Miami.

Gross was a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama.

"After years in prison, we're overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan," the president said.

Referring to the key role played by the Vatican in the landmark diplomatic opening, Obama added: "As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of 'small steps.' These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba."