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Obama loosens restriction on travel and remittances to Cuba

Tuesday, April 14th 2009 - 02:11 UTC
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President Barack Obama has decided to loosen restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, senior US administration officials said Monday. A formal announcement was expected later in the day, reports CNN.

The decision, which comes days before President Obama leaves for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, represents a significant shift in US policy toward Cuba. Several key components of the US nearly half-century embargo on the island nation, however, will be preserved.

Among other things, US citizens still will be barred from sending gifts or other items to high-ranking Cuban government officials and Communist Party members. Travel restrictions for US citizens of non-Cuban descent also will remain in place. Before he was elected President Obama promised to lower some of the barriers in Cuban-American relations.

“There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans,” Obama said in a campaign speech last May in Miami, the heart of the US Cuban-American community. “It's time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It's time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.”

Provisions attached to a 410 billion US dollars 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 the US Congress see broader relations with Cuba as vital to US 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.

The Obama administration also will begin issuing licenses to allow telecommunications and other companies to provide cell and television services to people on the island, and to allow family members to pay for relatives on Cuba to get those services, the official said.

Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus also said it is time to change US 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.

Some lawmakers, backed by business and farm groups seeing new opportunities in Cuba, have been advocating wider revisions in the trade and travel bans imposed after Fidel Castro took power in Havana in 1959.

Nevertheless it is believed the decades-old US trade embargo will remain in place, since that policy provides leverage “to pressure the regime to free all political prisoners as one step toward normalized relations with the US”, according to White House sources.

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