After almost a decade of tightening the screws on Cuba, the White House reversed course Monday.
Undoing restrictions imposed by the Bush administration, President Barack Obama ordered the lifting of all curbs on family visits and money transfers for Cuban-Americans with family still living on the island. Many of the estimated 1.5 million Cuban-Americans living in the United States have relatives in Cuba. Under the new policy they will also be allowed to send more types of humanitarian aid to Cuba, from clothing and personal hygiene items to seeds and fishing equipment.
In addition, U.S. telecommunications companies can apply for licenses to do business in Cuba, such as setting up television and mobile phone service.
The changes, which take effect immediately, amount to the greatest softening in Cuba policy in more than a decade.
"They are really opening up," said Silvia Wilhelm, with the Miami-based Cuban American Commission for Family Rights. "It's absolutely wonderful for Cuban-American families. The old regulations were totally cruel and un-American."
In a statement the White House said the change in policy was designed "to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their country's future." That included freer access to information and essential household items most Cubans cannot afford.
The change in Cuba regulations got a mixed reception in Congress and among Cuban-Americans. "Many families I know need to travel to visit a sick or dying relative," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who has been a strong supporter of easing travel restrictions. "This is about easing the personal struggles of families."
The announcement was "good news" for Cuban families separated from their loved ones, said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who has an aunt in Cuba.
But he echoed some who called for limits on travel and the amounts of money that can be sent to Cuba, saying the Cuban government profits from a 20 percent commission. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also said he supported limits, preferring that only one family visit be permitted annually.
Tampa lawyer Ralph Fernandez, a Cuban-American Democrat and longtime advocate for Cuban political prisoners, said the policy change was on balance "a prudent choice" given the lack of support for the United States in Latin America. But, he added, that shouldn't mean giving up a hard-line stance against the Castro government.
"We need to send a clear signal to the world that we are a kind and gentle nation that doesn't take crap from the least of pirates to the biggest of dictators," he said.
The White House denied the policy shift was a result of pressure from Latin America on the eve of a major summit of heads of state in Trinidad and Tobago this weekend.
"The president promised this during the campaign, and he is making good on that promise today," said Dan Restrepo, senior director for western hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council.
Obama made the pledge in a Miami campaign speech last May, where he declared "there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans."
It is uncertain how Cuba will react to Obama's move, which does not affect the 47-year-old economic embargo. Though the Cuban government stands to benefit from remittance fees, as well as increased occupancy rates in state-owned hotels, new arrivals also present a challenge to Cuba's tightly controlled political system.
But Cuban officials will surely have noted the White House announcement stressed the need to lessen Cubans' dependence on the Castro regime, while pressing Cuba on "core democratic values," including respect for "basic human, political and economic rights of all its citizens."
"This is a step to extend a hand to the Cuban people in support of their desire to determine their own future," Restrepo said. "It's very important to help open up space so the Cuban people can work on the kind of grass roots democracy that is necessary to move Cuba to a better future."
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