POLITICS

Obama brushes off critics on Cuba deal, says U.S. has opportunity to influence generation of Cubans

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 20: A protester holds an American flag and a Cuban one as she joins with others opposed to U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement earlier in the week of  a change to the United States Cuba policy stand together at Jose Marti park on December 20, 2014 in Miami, Florida. President Obama announced a move toward normalizing the relationship with Cuba after a swap of prisoners took place.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 20: A protester holds an American flag and a Cuban one as she joins with others opposed to U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement earlier in the week of a change to the United States Cuba policy stand together at Jose Marti park on December 20, 2014 in Miami, Florida. President Obama announced a move toward normalizing the relationship with Cuba after a swap of prisoners took place. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

President Barack Obama said his plan to normalize relations with Cuba gives the U.S. a chance to influence events at an important moment of change for the communist nation, and he brushed off critics who accuse him of kowtowing to dictators.

Obama said a half-century of trying to push out the Castro government through isolation has not worked. He said his administration is taking a look at whether to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror, acknowledging that Havana's inclusion makes it difficult for the U.S. to pursue closer ties.

"If we engage, we have the opportunity to influence the course of events at a time when there's going to be some generational change in that country," Obama told CNN's "State of the Union" in an interview set to air Sunday. "And I think we should seize it and I intend to do so."

Obama's move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba elicited cheers from longtime opponents of the strict U.S. position toward Cuba. But his announcement last week also drew fierce opposition, including from some U.S. lawmakers in both parties who said Obama failed to win any commitments from Cuba to democratize before the easing of U.S. penalties and travel restrictions.

On Saturday, Cuban opposition leaders in Miami joined Cuban-American politicians and activists, pledging to oppose Obama's plan.

Cuban President Raul Castro, speaking to his National Assembly, said that Cuba would not renounce its communist system despite the normalization of ties with the U.S. He paraded three convicted spies just released from U.S. prison, and they shook their fists in victory in front of parliament.

Obama said it's wrong to accuse him of letting dictators outmaneuver him, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin as an example. After all, Russia's currency is now collapsing under the weight of U.S. and European penalties, he pointed out.

"There is this knee-jerk sense, I think, on the part of some in the foreign policy establishment that, you know, shooting first and thinking about it second projects strength," Obama said.

"We have been very firm with respect to those countries that we think are violating international law or are acting against our interests. But I have been consistent in saying that where we can solve problems diplomatically, we should do so."

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