updated 2/21/2007 1:51:29 PM ET 2007-02-21T18:51:29

Despite pressure from members of Congress and business groups, the United States has no plans to soften its policies toward Cuba as the island heads into the post-Fidel Castro era, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says.

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“Now isn’t the time to ease the restrictions,” Gutierrez said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday ahead of a speech he was to deliver Wednesday to business groups on Cuba policy.

The illness of Fidel Castro coupled with the emergence of a Democratic-controlled Congress has generated some interest in Washington in a reassessment of Cuba policy, the centerpiece of which is the 45-year-old trade embargo against the communist nation.

“There is growing momentum and broad support for a new approach toward U.S.-Cuba policy among members of the U.S. business and agriculture communities, as well as key policymakers,” said Jake Colvin, director of USA Engage, a group that opposes economic sanctions as a political tool. He spoke to a forum on Cuba in Washington last month.

Also, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have introduced legislation to lift all restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba.

“Far from hastening democratic reforms, our current policy has given Fidel Castro a convenient scapegoat for his own regime’s failures,” Flake said. “With the Cuban government taking new shape, we shouldn’t give the new leader the same excuses we’ve given the old one.”

‘No plans to confiscate any property’
Gutierrez said Castro has tried to blame the United States for the country’s economic problems but that Castro’s own policies are responsible.

“This isn’t about American policy. It’s about Cuban policy,” he said. He added that he sees little prospect for change in Cuba under Raul Castro, who has been acting president since his elder brother fell ill in late July.

“There is nothing in his past to suggest that he (Raul) is a reformer,” Gutierrez said.

Interest in Cuba comes naturally to Gutierrez, who was born in Havana and left Cuba at age six for Florida with his family. Now 53, he joined President Bush’s cabinet in 2005 after serving as chairman of the board and CEO of the Kellogg Co.

Gutierrez sought to put to rest the notion among Cuban officials that the United States is intent on recapturing the dominant role it played on the island before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.

“We have no plans to confiscate any property,” he said. “We have no military plans. Our goal is to be of help. We know we can be of help. The destiny of Cuba is in the hands of Cubans on the island, not people in Washington or someplace else.”

The official U.S. policy is maintain current restrictions on diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba until the country takes credible steps toward a transition to democracy.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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