By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on Wednesday he did not expect Congress to lift the half-century-long embargo against Cuba this year but it could happen under a new president, if there are changes in Havana.
President Barack Obama has been moving quickly toward more normal relations with Havana in the past 14 months but the crippling trade embargo is one of the remaining major obstacles.
"It's not going to happen this year but I think it's something that could happen as we move into a new president('s administration)," Republican Senator Bob Corker told journalists at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
"If Cuba were to evolve its behavior and people were able to see results from what's happening with the executive order changes that are occurring, then I think it's possible," he said.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December 2014 that they would normalize relations after decades of hostility. Those changes have been strongly opposed by many congressional Republicans, who say Cuba needs to do more to improve human rights before trade is eased.
Obama, a Democrat, has used his executive powers to ease restrictions on travel and trade. His administration just announced that next month Obama would become the first U.S. president to visit Havana since 1928.
But the U.S. trade embargo, imposed on the communist-ruled nation in 1960, cannot be lifted without congressional approval. Republicans control Congress and although several agree with the overwhelming majority of Democrats who want the embargo ended, the party's congressional leaders are strongly opposed.
Corker has not taken a position but has noted in the past that the embargo has not changed Cuban policy.
The politics are more complicated because two Cuban-American senators vying for the Republican presidential nomination, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, are vocal opponents of Obama's policy and party leaders are unlikely to come out against them during the campaign.
Corker said things are already changing, although Havana still needs to change.
"To me it appears that things are gradually moving along. We have air flights that are now going in, and it seems to me that this is going to be a year where those things take hold," Corker said. "Obviously there's still tremendous human rights abuses that are taking place in Cuba," he said.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Trott)