Cuba travel ban: White House poised to ease restrictions

The expected order from President Obama would not fully lift the Cuba travel ban, but it would ease the stricter rules put in place during the Bush years. Many expect an announcement by Labor Day.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Cuba travel ban: Anti-Castro stalwart Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., issued a statement earlier this month saying, 'This is not the time to ease the pressure on the Castro regime.'

Expectations are rising that the Obama administration will move in the coming days to ease travel restrictions to Cuba.

The hubbub about an anticipated White House statement is leading to stepped-up speculation about areas of potential exchange and trade with the long-embargoed Caribbean island, such as energy development.

“Right now they [in the White House and the State Department] are just fine-tuning what they are going to be putting out,” says Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas in Washington.

Insisting an executive order about Cuba travel “is a done deal,” Ms. Stephens says, “It’s going to look very much like what the conditions for travel were under President Clinton, with the emphasis on ‘people to people exchange,’ ” possibly including religious and academic groups. [Editor's note: The original version was changed to better reflect what Stephens said.]

After that, she adds, “It will be interesting to see what happens around the edges, with business and other groups.”

The White House has been sending out trial balloons suggesting presidential action on Cuba travel – enough to get a reaction from Cuba hardliner Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, who issued a statement earlier this month saying, “This is not the time to ease the pressure on the Castro regime.”

President Obama’s action would not fully lift the ban on US travel to Cuba, but would instead ease restrictions in ways the administration considers to be consistent with US policy of encouraging democratic reforms and greater freedom on the communist island. Action by Mr. Obama would continue a pattern of reversing the tighter restrictions on travel implemented under the Bush administration.

A few administration watchers believe the decision will be unveiled only after what are expected to be difficult midterm elections for the Democrats, but most say an announcement will come by the Labor Day weekend.

An announcement now would reflect a sentiment in the White House that a decision to ease travel to Cuba would not cause much of a political storm, some US-Cuba experts say. The White House, they add, also wants to act in the context of movement on Capitol Hill in favor of a full lifting of the travel ban and toward a further easing of conditions for agricultural trade with Cuba.

Action now would be aimed in part at “creating momentum for ending the travel ban,” says Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a Washington business organization that favors ending the Cuba embargo. More broadly, he says, administration and congressional action reflect a growing “consensus” that it’s time “to do something different on Cuba.”

Energy development is one area where pressure is expected to grow for “something different” in Cuba policy. Cuba has begun exploratory drilling in search of oil in its territorial waters, with some reports estimating the island could become a major oil producer – and refiner – over the next five to 10 years.

“Cuba is thinking about energy economically [in the region] in not a small way at all,” says Lisa Margonelli, director of energy policy at the New America Foundation in Washington. “That’s something the US should consider as we look down the road.”

Experts who favor developing energy ties with Cuba say the US needs to consider that other hemispheric sources of oil, including Mexico and Venezuela, face increasingly difficult production conditions. With Cuba just off US shores, they say, locking the US out of a new market makes no sense. Proponents also point to the recent Gulf oil leak and say the US has a keen environmental interest in working with Cuba in its offshore development.

Such reasoning runs up against the arguments of anti-Castro stalwarts like Senator Menendez and US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida –the latter having proposed legislation targeting foreign oil companies involved in oil exploration and development in Cuba. (Those oil company executives might, for instance, be denied visas to the US.)

“The big corporate interests behind the push to relax the embargo couldn’t care less about whether the Cuban people are free or not,” Menendez said in his statement. “They only care about padding their profits by opening up a new market.”

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