Saturday, January 15, 2011

NYT: Restrictions on Travel to Cuba are Eased

January 15, 2011

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration on Friday eased restrictions on Americans' travel to Cuba in an effort to encourage more contact between people in both countries, while leaving intact the decades-old embargo against the island's Communist government.

White House officials said they were lifting travel restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush and expanding the so-called people-to-people provisions created under President Bill Clinton. The changes provide broad opportunities for travel to Cuba by academic, religious and cultural groups and allow charter flights from more American airports.

The new measures also permit Americans to send money to Cuban citizens - except for members of the Castro government and the Communist Party - and to religious organizations to support "private economic activity."

The administration had been expected to announce these measures months ago, but Congressional and administration officials said they were delayed because of White House concerns about their possible impact on the 2010 midterm elections. There were also worries about the effect the move could have on the detention of a contractor for the United States Agency for International Development who was arrested in Cuba more than a year ago after he was discovered distributing satellite communication equipment to religious groups.

State Department officials visited the contractor, Alan Gross, in Havana this week. The Associated Press reported Friday that the State Department was "cautiously optimistic" that Mr. Gross, 60, who has had health problems, would be tried and then allowed to return to the United States.

Still, the fact that the White House announced the new measures late on a Friday afternoon when most Republican members of Congress were away on retreat and Democrats had left their offices for the long holiday weekend, indicated that the administration hoped to enact the changes with as little fanfare - and backlash - as possible.

The White House announcement also comes as the Cuban government is carrying out a sweeping economic overhaul, including layoffs of hundreds of thousands of state workers. Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said the increased flow of money from American citizens would help Cubans cope with the changes. Asked whether the administration was concerned that the measure might inadvertently strengthen the Cuban government by providing its economy with a new source of hard currency, a senior administration official said, "What we know is that it will put money into the hands of the Cuban people and allow them to have more independence from the Cuban state."

Still, a handful of supporters and opponents of the measures took time to make their feelings known. "Loosening these regulations will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, the new chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, applauded the measures as "an important step," saying that they "open the way for the good will of citizens of both countries to forge deeper ties that are in our national interest today and in the future.

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