The Obama administration has decided to loosen restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, senior administration officials said Monday.
The White House plans to announce the change later Monday. The decision, which comes days before President Obama leaves for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, represents a significant shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Several key components of America’s nearly half-centry embargo on the island nation, however, will be preserved. Among other things, Americans still will be barred from sending gifts or other items to high-ranking Cuban government officials and Communist Party members. Travel restrictions for Americans of non-Cuban descent also will remain in place. Before he was elected, Obama promised to lower some of the barriers in Cuban-American relations.
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Provisions attached to a $410 billion supplemental budget Obama signed in March also made it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and to send money to family members on the island. In addition, they facilitated the sale of agricultural and pharmaceutical products to Cuba. The provisions loosened restrictions enacted by President Bush after he came to office in 2001. Several members of Congress see broader relations with Cuba as vital to U.S. interests. A group of senators and other supporters unveiled a bill March 31 to lift the 47-year-old travel ban to Cuba. “I think that we finally reached a new watermark here on this issue,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, one of the bill’s sponsors. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, another sponsor of the bill, issued a draft report in February that said it was time to reconsider the economic sanctions. Lugar is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Several leading academic experts released a letter Monday urging Obama “to extricate Cuba policy from the tangle of domestic politics, enable our nation to engage Cuba on serious neighborhood problems and build a sense of mutual confidence between our governments so that we can discuss our political differences.” The letter was signed by Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, among others. Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus also said it is time to change U.S. policy toward Cuba after returning from a meeting in Havana last week with both Fidel Castro and Cuban President Raúl Castro. Other lawmakers, however, remain adamantly opposed to easing sanctions on Cuba, arguing that such a move would only reward and strengthen the Castro regime. Reps. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, and Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, last week urged Obama to refrain from easing the trade embargo or travel restrictions until the Cuban government releases all “prisoners of conscience,” shows greater respect for freedom of religion and speech and holds “free and fair” elections. “Over the past 50 years, the Castros and their secret police have been directly responsible for killing thousands of nonviolent, courageous pro-democracy activists and for jailing and torturing tens of thousands of others. And they continue to this day to perpetrate their brutal crimes,” Smith said. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said it makes no sense to continue what she characterized as a failed policy. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but by any objective standard our current policy toward Cuba just hasn’t worked. Simply put, it’s time to open dialogue and discussion with Cuba,” Lee said in a statement.