WASHINGTON – In a measured break with a half-century of US policy toward Cuba, the Obama administration lifted restrictions Monday on Cuban-Americans who want to travel and send money to their island homeland.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, left, listens to Dan Restrepo, US President Barack Obama's senior adviser on Latin America, speak about the changes in America's Cuba policy, Monday, April 13, 2009, in the pressroom at the White House in Washington. [Agencies]
In a further gesture of openness, US telecommunications firms were freed to seek business there, too. But the broader US trade embargo remained in place.
The White House portrayed its changes, and they marked another major step away from the foreign policy priorities of the Bush administration.
But the moves fell far short of the more drastic policy adjustments that some, including Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, have argued are required to promote US interests in Latin America and to bring about change in Cuba. For most Americans, Cuba remains the only country in the world their government prohibits them from visiting -- a barrier to potential travelers as well as to the Cuban tourist industry that would like to see them.
Cubans welcomed the changes but said more should be done.
"It's help that the people really need," Fermina Gonzalez, a 46-year-old housewife in the leafy Havana neighborhood of Vedado, said of the ending of limits on money sent by Cuban-Americans. "Right now, we have to work lots of jobs just to make ends meet."
But few Cubans expect Obama to end the trade embargo or allow American tourists to visit the island without limits.
"He should do more and lift travel restrictions for all Americans," said Alberto Sal, a 68-year-old retiree. "Until he does that, I don't think he's doing much."
Lifting or substantially easing the economic embargo, as set forth in the Cuban Assets Control Regulations and administered by the Treasury Department, would require legislative action by Congress. The White House made no mention of any intention to seek such changes; Obama said as a presidential candidate that the embargo was a form of leverage to press for "democratic reforms" in Cuba.
Julia Sweig, director of Latin studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, described Obama's changes as "teensy, weensy" and said they appear to be driven more by domestic political calculations than by foreign policy considerations.
"This is a cautious first step by a president whose political advisers are looking at the Florida electoral vote," she said in a telephone interview, "and who are not looking at this as a matter of foreign policy. That's the big problem with Cuba policy. We have a policy toward Miami and not toward Havana."
Sweig added, however, that Obama's decision to authorize more telecommunications links with Cuba was a "potentially significant opening," particularly if the Cuban government follows through and allows those connections.
Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch welcomed the Cuba announcement but said more should be done.
"If President Obama is serious about promoting change in Cuba, this executive order must be part of a larger shift away from the US's unilateral approach toward the Cuban government," Vivanco said.
Taking the other side, three Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to Obama on Monday that his decisions would have "devastating consequences."
They said the Cuban government takes 30 cents of every dollar in US remittances that enters the country as a usury fee.