WASHINGTON -- President Clinton will announce today a series of new steps to improve contact between Americans and Cubans, including permission for U.S. news organizations to open bureaus on the island, and increased academic and scientific exchanges.
In a speech today, the president is also expected to announce an easing of restrictions on emergency visits by Cuban-Americans to family members in Cuba and to allow Western Union to open offices there to handle "humanitarian" fund transfers.
Taken together, these steps amount to a significant easing of the 30-year U.S. policy of isolating Cuba, even though the United States will maintain pressure on the regime of President Fidel Castro by keeping a trade embargo in force and by tightly limiting official contacts.
A White House official who outlined the new policy said it builds on provisions of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo but also opened the way for new efforts by Americans to reach out to Cubans outside government channels.
Mr. Clinton's actions mark an apparent effort to retain control of U.S. policy toward Cuba and the Castro regime in the expectation that the Republican-dominated Congress will pass legislation that would sharply tighten the economic embargo.
The president is expected to veto the legislation, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, because it would penalize U.S. trading partners that do business with Cuba.
The Clinton administration has been moving toward improved relations with Cuba since it ended a 3-decade-old policy of granting asylum to Cuban refugees. However, it has operated cautiously, mindful of the political clout wielded by the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American community.
None of the new measures has been agreed to by the Castro regime, and some of them could be seen as undermining Mr. Castro's tight control over speech and information.
"It helps break the monopoly on information," the White House official said.
But administration officials say that if Mr. Castro accepts the measures, he could move Cuba a step closer to an end to the trade embargo.
Permission to allow U.S. news bureaus to open in Cuba has been under consideration for some time. Individual reporters now are granted permission to travel to the island, but may not open offices there.
The last U.S. news organization was expelled from Cuba in the late 1960s, according to the Associated Press.
The Clinton administration will encourage broader contact between Americans and Cubans by allowing more academic, cultural and religious exchanges.
Mr. Clinton will announce plans to license nongovernmental organizations that promote democracy and human rights, with the aim of forging ties with similar organizations in Cuba.
Those Cuban organizations would be able to receive computers, fax machines and copiers sent from the United States -- a departure from the terms of the embargo.
The Clinton measures include several humanitarian provisions:
* Rather than waiting for months or even years for permission to visit relatives in Cuba, Cuban-Americans would be allowed up to one visit per year to respond to a "humanitarian emergency," according to the new policy.
* While Cuban-Americans may send money to help Cubans emigrate or to meet emergency needs, they would be allowed easier transfer of those funds through Western Union.
In an apparent effort to mollify Cuban-American leaders, who will likely oppose some of the new steps, Mr. Clinton plans to announce moves to tighten enforcement of the trade embargo.
The administration plans to strengthen the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury, which enforces the embargo. According to the Associated Press, it will also station agents with cameras at airports with flights to and from Cuba. A particular target is travelers who try to enter Cuba with large amounts of money.
"We will not lift the trade embargo," the White House official said. "Nor will we change relations unless there is a significant movement toward democracy."
Cuba's economy is in ruins as the island's isolation grows with the end of the Cold War and bad harvest after bad harvest, which could lead Mr. Castro to take steps that would encourage the United States to lift the crippling trade embargo.
The Communist regime has said it will consider economic changes, but not political ones.
The United States is under broad pressure to change its Cuban policy. More and more, nations are calling for the United States to moderate its approach to the Castro regime.