President Obama on Monday lifted the most stringent Bush-era restrictions on trade, travel and remittances to Cuba and opened the door for new U.S. telecommunications deals on the island, in a move that signaled a different approach to the communist regime and was seen as heading off a potential issue of contention at a major hemispheric summit later this week.
“We're getting the United States out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families,” said Dan Restrepo, the president's top adviser on Latin American issues at the National Security Council.
“The Cuban government should get itself out of the way and allow Cuban families to support Cuban families. And that creates the kind of space, in our view, that is necessary to move Cuba forward to a free and democratic Cuba,” he said.
The administration rolled back some restrictions on family travel and remittances imposed by the Bush administration and then went further, dropping barriers to U.S. satellite and cellular phone companies conducting business in Cuba.
The telecom move is a gamble for both the U.S. and Cuba. It could enrich the Cuban government but would require it to open what has been a closed and totalitarian country to outside communication via cell phones, television and radio.
There was general approval of the president's decision from lawmakers and advocacy groups, a decision that fulfilled a promise made by Mr. Obama during the presidential campaign. Disagreement remains over whether to take further action on pulling down travel, trade and business barriers between the U.S. and Cuba.
Bills to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba have been introduced in both chambers of Congress, but the White House studiously avoided taking a position on whether or not it supports such a move, or whether it would be in favor of lifting all trade restrictions.
Mr. Restrepo called the steps announced Monday “the most effective under the current circumstances,” though he also said that U.S. policy toward Cuba is “not frozen in time.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that the president's decision was “in no way designed to, or done in a way to, quell so-called pressure,” but the announcement came days before Mr. Obama departs for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, a trip that will be preceded on Thursday and Friday by a trip to Mexico.
Mr. Obama's easing of the restrictions shows that he is “willing to change policies that have not worked in the past and talk to our enemies rather than try to isolate them,” said Stan Marcuss, who worked on U.S.-Cuba policy for President Carter when the White House removed almost all travel barriers. He now works at the law firm Bryan Cave LLP.
“I think there's a big appetite for that in Latin America and around the world,” he said.
Latin America also is home to a cadre of foreign leaders, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who are antagonistic toward the U.S. and grew increasingly so during the Bush years. These leaders view former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro as an icon, and there is a general feeling among many Latin American countries that the U.S. should cooperate more with the Cuban government, which has been headed by Mr. Castro's brother Raul for the past year.
Even many anti-Castro groups think President George W. Bush's hard-line positions - which were enacted in 2004 in response to a crackdown on dissidents in Cuba - did more harm than good.
The Bush administration restrictions being lifted by Mr. Obama penalized the Cuban people but not the government, said Camila Ruiz-Gallardo, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation.
“It was more difficult for people to grow independent of the state, to allow people to think and act freely independent of the state, and it hurt our ability to help opposition groups or human rights groups,” said Ms. Ruiz-Gallardo. “Unless they're a family member, you can't send them money. So it was counterproductive to the process of helping to precipitate a transition to democracy.”