Obama eases Cuba travel, but embargo remains

His reforms make it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit and financially support family on the island. But some Latin leaders say the changes don’t go far enough.

Enrique De La Osa/Reuters
People walk along Varadero beach in Matanzas, Cuba, on April 9. The Obama administration announced Monday it will loosen some restrictions on Americans' dealings with Cuba.

The Obama administration announced Monday that it will loosen some restrictions on Americans' contact and dealings with Cuba – a first step in what is seen as a gradual revision of US policy toward the communist island country.

The forthcoming changes include a repeal of limits on how many times Cuban-Americans can visit family in their Caribbean homeland and how much money they can send to relatives there. The reforms are timed to send President Obama off on his first trip to Latin America later this week armed with evidence of a new direction in US policy towards the region.

But administration officials say the measures will stop well short of a full repeal of the nearly 50-year-old trade embargo of Cuba. That in-between position has both Latin leaders and some members of Congress suggesting that the planned measures are inadequate half-steps. They are calling for a full US-Cuba dialogue.

Mr. Obama's refusal to fully engage with Cuba "is a double standard," says Ricardo Lagos, a former president of Chile and an eminence grise of Latin diplomacy. Under the new administration, the US is "willing to talk to countries that were in the 'axis of evil,' " he notes, "[so] it is difficult to understand why [the US] is not going to talk to Cuba."

Obama's repeal of the tighter restrictions implemented under President Bush reflect the position he laid out during the presidential campaign: "Cuban-American connections to family in Cuba are not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grass-roots democracy on the island," candidate Obama wrote in an opinion piece in the Miami Herald in August. Foreshadowing Monday's decision, he added that, if elected, "I will grant Cuban-Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island."

The changes were announced by presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs in a press briefing Monday afternoon. They include a broadened list of items that families can send to relatives in Cuba, such as humanitarian goods like clothes, fishing equipment, and personal-hygiene products. Moreover, some US telecommunications companies will now be permitted to apply for licenses to do business in Cuba. If the Cuban government allows it, they could bring improved radio, TV, mobile phone, and Internet service to the country – part of the Obama administration's effort to link Cubans to the outside world.

The White House says US-Cuba policy is under a full review. But the expectation that Obama would announce his new policy reform before attending the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago beginning Friday has spawned a raft of letters and recommendations – from Congress, from Cuba policy groups on the left and right, and from Cuban-American organizations.

Perhaps the most prominent of those calls came from US Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, who urged Obama in a March 30 letter to open a dialogue with Cuba's Communist regime and to welcome the island nation into the Washington-based Organization of American States.

But Senator Lugar did not call for ending the 1962 economic embargo, nor did he call for establishing full diplomatic relations. Instead, he recommended naming a special envoy who could begin a dialogue on issues such as democratic reform, migration, and drug-trafficking.

Other members of Congress oppose such a plan. Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey – a Cuban-American – rejects any opening to Cuba as a gift to a regime that continues to jail dissidents and prodemocracy advocates.

By skirting the emotional issue of the embargo – the repeal of which would require congressional action – Obama may be signaling a desire to start with reforms that won't ruffle too many feathers.

But some Cuba experts say the embargo issue is a red herring: It does not stand in the way of meaningful change. "The embargo is nothing; we shouldn't let it stand in the way of so many things we can do," says Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

Mr. Smith says Obama needs to make a clean break from the Bush administration – both in personnel and policy. One good-faith step, he says, would be to reestablish the academic exchanges and intergovernment dialogue that existed before the Bush administration.

The Obama administration also should make clear that it is no longer official US policy to bring down the Cuban government, says Smith, a former head of the US Interests Section in Havana – a sort of quasi embassy. "We can talk while still having our disagreements. Then maybe we can get to the embargo in a few years."

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