By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department official leading negotiations with the Cuban government said on Wednesday the United States is not considering returning the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay to Havana as it discusses improved ties.
"The issue of Guantanamo is not on the table in these conversations," Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, testified during a House of Representatives hearing.
Cuban President Raul Castro said last week that Havana's demands in talks with the United States toward normalizing diplomatic relations had included the return of the base.
Lawmakers raised the Guantanamo issue repeatedly in a hearing that occasionally turned contentious. Republicans and some of President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats questioned whether his shift to end the U.S. isolation of Cuba would do enough to improve human rights on the Communist-ruled island.
"The administration may have given a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life to continue its repression at home and militant support for Marxist regimes abroad," said Republican Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"I might have been more favorably impressed by the policy if it hadn't been such a complete shock and if Congress had been involved," said Democratic Representative Brad Sherman of California, one of several lawmakers - including some who support the new policy - who criticized the administration for not consulting Congress.
Jacobson also said there were no plans to shut down the U.S. government-funded Radio and TV Marti. The two media outlets are directed by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting agency and aimed at supporting opposition to the Cuban government.
The Havana government has long opposed the media outlets, but current moves toward normalizing relations are unlikely to be stopped by the differences over the broadcasters or Guantanamo. More bilateral talks are scheduled later this month.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers who back Obama's policy shift have introduced legislation seeking to repeal U.S. restrictions on Americans' travel to Cuba, and are writing more that they intend to introduce in the coming weeks seeking to ease the half-century-long embargo.
But stiff opposition in Congress, which must approve ending the embargo, make it unlikely that such measures will come up for votes in the House or the Senate any time soon.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Trott and Mohammad Zargham)