Embargo on Cuba loosens, by stages

But more trade and eased travel restrictions appear unlikely to win much in return from the island nation.

By , Correspondent

What does the embargo restrict?

The US prohibits most Americans from spending money in Cuba, effectively prohibiting travel to the island, with some exceptions, including for educational programs and academic research. Until recently, under a Bush administration tightening of travel restrictions, Cuban Americans could only visit relatives in Cuba once every three years and were allowed to stay for up to two weeks. Money transfers to family members were restricted.

Most trade between the two countries has been prohibited since 1962. But in 2000, Congress passed a law allowing Cuba to buy American agricultural products with cash. The US subsequently became Cuba's fifth-largest trading partner, as of 2007, with US agricultural sales to Cuba reaching $718 million in 2008. The biggest exports in 2008 included $198 million in corn, $153 million in meat and poultry, and $135 million in wheat, according to the Census Bureau. Companies that export to Cuba include such industry giants as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland Co., Tyson Foods, and Perdue.

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There are also some exceptions to the embargo allowing US biotechnology companies to develop drugs created in Cuba.

What changes has Mr. Obama made to the embargo?

In April, Obama lifted all travel and remittance restrictions for Americans with family in Cuba, and called on Cuba to make progress on human rights and release political prisoners. He also allowed US telecommunications companies to do business in Cuba, which would expand satellite television, Internet, and cellphone access on the island. But travel restrictions remain in place for Americans with no family members in Cuba.

Will the US lift the travel ban for all Americans?

Obama could relax restrictions for nontourist travel, bringing restrictions back to Clinton administration levels, when 30,000 to 40,000 Americans traveled to Cuba every year for cultural exchanges and educational programs. In 2003 the Bush administration ended cultural exchange programs – and tightened restrictions on university-affiliated programs to Cuba, requiring that they be at least 10 weeks long, which eliminated summer programs; preventing universities from enrolling students of other universities in the summer programs; and requiring that the program director be a full-time employee of the university. Under the new regulations, says William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, the number of universities operating educational programs in Cuba has fallen from several dozen to about six.

Tens of thousands of Americans visit Cuba illegally every year, usually entering Cuba through a third country such as Mexico. According to the Associated Press, about 40,500 Americans visited Cuba illegally in 2007.

Obama has not indicated whether he would support pending legislation that would end the ban on tourism travel, which could come to a vote before the end of this year. He would be unlikely to oppose a rollback if it passed Congress with a clear majority, but Professor LeoGrande says, "he's letting Congress take the initiative."

Jaime Suchliki, director of the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami, says Congress would be unwise to give up its leverage without meaningful concessions from Cuba.

"The US is conditioning the change in ... foreign policy on the willingness of the Cuban government to offer concessions in Cuba in human rights, political freedom, and economic change," says Mr. Suchliki. "Cuba is not willing to offer meaningful concessions.... If you're telling me that our policy that has been established for 40 or 50 years should be changed without anything in return, I'm going to tell you that's not how you conduct foreign policy."

Will the US end the trade embargo?

A complete lifting of the embargo is unlikely, but Congress and the president may take steps to poke holes in it with targeted measures.

"[Obama] did say that to lift the embargo entirely, there would have to be significant democratic change in Cuba, and I don't think that's something that's on the near horizon, so I don't expect him to go to Congress and get the embargo lifted," says LeoGrande. "I think what we are more likely to see is lifting of pieces of the embargo."

On May 20, 16 senators introduced a bill that would ease the restrictions on the sale of US agricultural products to Cuba by allowing the country to wire payment for the goods directly to the US.

Since 2005, Cuba has been required to use third-country banks to pay for the goods in cash before they leave port.

Lifting the travel ban would create a major hole in the embargo as it would allow US dollars to flow to the island's tourism industry. Lifting the remittance restrictions creates another gap. The president's commercial licensing authority can also be used to bypass the embargo, and Obama has already used that authority to allow telecommunications companies to operate in Cuba, LeoGrande points out.

Daniel Erikson, senior associate at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, says lifting the travel ban would likely increase support for ending the trade embargo as well.

"If ... the travel ban in Cuba was lifted, that would create a lot of interest from US companies to invest on the island," he says.

How has Cuba responded to Obama's overtures?

Obama's loosening of travel restrictions and Cuban President Raúl Castro's statement that he was ready for dialogue prompted a flurry of excitement.But Fidel Castro and other Cuban officials quickly clarified that Cuba does not intend to offer any concessions.

Late last month, however, Cuba agreed to resume direct talks with the US on migration and the reestablishment of direct mail between the two countries. Previous talks on migration issues were cut off by the Bush administration. Cuban officials also expressed interest in expanding the talks to topics of mutual interest like counternarcotics, counterrorism, and hurricane disaster response.

LeoGrande says this is another step forward. "The fact that they're having talks will give them a venue in which to raise other issues, at least in an exploratory form," he says. "The Cubans, if they feel like the bilateral relationship is improving, are likely to be more forthcoming in issues like human rights."

But, he says, while the talks could lead to progress, it is probably not a signal that Cuba is ready to concede on the core issues Obama has pressed – human rights, democratic reforms, and political prisoners.

"The Obama administration clearly has signaled a different approach to Cuba," says Mr. Erikson, "but there's still this desire to get some reciprocity on the part of the Cubans, which they do not appear eager to follow through with."

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