The White House announced Monday that it is abandoning long-standing restrictions on family travel, remittances and gifts to Cuba, and also is taking steps to open up telecommunications with the island, a significant shift in policy that fulfills a promise President Obama made during his election campaign.
WASHINGTON – The White House announced Monday that it is abandoning long-standing restrictions on family travel, remittances and gifts to Cuba, and also is taking steps to open up telecommunications with the island, a significant shift in policy that fulfills a promise President Obama made during his election campaign.The long-awaited announcement is meant to reach out to the Cuban people, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at what apparently was the first-ever bilingual White House news briefing.
The policy change – which includes pushing for more cellphone and satellite service for Cubans on the island – reversed former President George W. Bushs efforts to tighten restrictions against Cuba but stopped far short of efforts in Congress to lift all travel restrictions.Congress last month resumed allowing Cuban Americans to visit family members once a year. Under Bush, that had been pushed back to once every three years.Congress also is considering legislation that would allow all Americans, not only those with family ties to Cuba, to travel freely there.Obama is not lifting the long-standing trade embargo with Cuba but using his executive authority to shift policy toward Cuba in three specific areas:Cuban Americans will be allowed to travel freely to the island and send as much money as they want to family members – so long as the money is not going to senior officials of the Cuban government or the Communist Party.
Second, the administration will take steps to open up communications to the island by allowing telecommunications companies to engage in licensing agreements that will support cellphones, satellite televisions and computers there.Third, the president will reverse restrictions on gift packages, imposed by his predecessor in 2004. The new rules will permit Cuban Americans to send clothing, personal-hygiene items, seeds and fishing equipment to family members on the island – again, so long as the recipients are not government or Communist Party officials.The White House also called on the Castro regime to end its practice of keeping a portion of every remittance.Obamas actions drew immediate criticism from Florida Republican Reps. Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both Cuban Americans.
The brothers issued a press statement calling the presidents decision a serious mistake that would enrich the Castro regime by enabling the government to skim off the money that Americans send to Cuba. Obama, they said, is unilaterally granting a concession to the dictatorship which will provide it with hundreds of millions of dollars annually.White House officials said the changes are aimed at hastening change on the island, in part by helping Cubans become less dependent on their government.We think the positive benefits here will way outweigh any negative effects that they may have, said Dan Restrepo, a special assistant to the president who spoke in English and Spanish.
That creating independence, creating space for the Cuban people to operate freely from the regime is the kind of space they need to start the process toward a more democratic Cuba.Obama campaigned on a promise to improve relations with Cuba, and the policy changes have support among Cuban Americans who would like to see family more often. Farm-state lawmakers and trade groups have urged Obama to go further and lift the trade ban entirely.
The announcement is timed to coincide with Obamas trip this week to Trinidad and Tobago for a gathering of Latin American and Caribbean leaders, where he may face calls to ease restrictions further.
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., who is traveling with Obama to Trinidad, said he planned to push to lift all travel bans.Its time to initiate a complete overhaul of our relationship with Cuba, Farr said. It will start with reform to family travel and remittances, but it cant end there. We must expand this new policy of diplomatic outreach to our own backyard and restore responsible relations with Cuba.