Cuba limits loosened

Freer family relations OK'd

trade embargo remains

April 14, 2009|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -President Barack Obama is permitting unlimited travel and transfer of money by Cuban-Americans to their relatives in Cuba and sponsoring greater telecommunications with the island, while keeping a long-standing U.S. embargo against trade with Cuba in place.

The State, Treasury and Commerce departments will lift "all restrictions" on the visits of family members to Cuba and remittances of money, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.

This "series of steps ... to reach out to the Cuban people" is intended to "help bridge the gap between divided Cuban families," Gibbs said, and in turn promote greater freedom and human rights in the communist nation. "President Obama believes the measure he has taken today will help make that goal a reality."

This will allow "families to visit families [and] allow families to send back some of their hard-earned money" to Cuba, Gibbs said, suggesting that the president views freer family relations as the key to a freer Cuba. "The best way to sum this up ... is to say there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans."

With the lifting of travel and financial restrictions and permission for cell phone communication, the president is attempting to aid Cubans in their pursuit of political freedom by making them less dependent on the Castro regime - while still holding the regime to account for human-rights abuses by enforcing a wide-ranging U.S. trade embargo.

"The president would like to see greater freedom for the Cuban people ... to open up the flow of information," Gibbs said.

Asked about criticism from Republicans who fear that money for families might end up in the hands of the Cuban government, an Obama administration adviser said that, on balance, the policy should benefit the people, not the government.

The steps taken Monday were announced in advance of the president's planned attendance at a weekend Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where he will meet with other hemispheric leaders who have called on the U.S. to ease its restrictions on Cuba.

The Bush administration had restricted Cuban travel, limiting passage to the island to two weeks every three years and limiting that to immediate family members. About 1.5 million Americans have relatives in Cuba, from which hundreds of thousands have fled since Fidel Castro took power in 1959; his brother, Raul, succeeded him as president last year.

The new rules broaden what can be shipped as gifts. And the Obama administration will start issuing licenses to allow companies to provide cell and television services to Cubans and allow relatives in the U.S. to pay for those services for their families on the island.

While some lawmakers are pushing for more trade with the island, Obama is maintaining a decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. The president contends this remains a point of leverage that the U.S. can use to pressure Cuba to free political prisoners and normalize relations with the U.S.

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