- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

UPDATED:

President Obama on Monday removed restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba imposed under President Bush and opened the way for telecommunications companies to do business on the communist-run island, a move applauded by advocacy groups and lawmakers but called only a first step by some.

Mr. Obama did not call for lifting the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba, which requires congressional approval and is the subject of debate right now on Capitol Hill, where there is strong support for legislation that would allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.

But the Obama administration says that eliminating Bush-era restrictions is the best first step toward opening Cuba to democratic change. The change was announced at a press briefing by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and Dan Restrepo, director for Western Hemispheric affairs at the National Security Council.

“President Obama has directed that a series of steps be taken to reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic human rights and to freely determine their country’s future,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Since 2004, travel to Cuba has been limited to once every three years for Cuban-Americans, and their visits have been limited to nuclear family members and could not last more than 14 days. Remittances were limited in 2004 to members of Cuban-American’s immediate family.

Mr. Obama’s changes will allow Cuban-Americans to travel back to the island if they are visiting family up to second cousins, and will allow remittances to be sent to all households as long as they do not include senior Cuban government or Communist party officials. The remittance limit is expected to remain at $300 every three months.

Remittances from the United States to Cuba have amounted to between $500 million and $1 billion annually, according to reports in the last few years by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and the Government Accountability Office.

Groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation favor the changes that Mr. Obama is making, but still oppose lifting the trade embargo and also oppose opening Cuba to tourist travel from the United States.

We want to try to isolate the regime but uplift the Cuban people, said Camila Ruiz-Gallardo, a CANF spokeswoman.

The restrictions being lifted by Mr. Obama from the Bush administration don’t penalize the Cuban government but they penalize the Cuban people.

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, Ms. Ruiz-Gallardo said.

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, she said.

Maintaining a travel ban for all Americans, however, keeps U.S. money out of tourist hotels and attractions that are largely run by the Cuban government. The Cuban government takes about 95 percent of wages from workers in most tourist hotels, she said.

It’s slave labor and we’d be directly supporting that practice by allowing tourist travel, said Ms. Ruiz-Gallardo. We’d be aiding the Cuban regime in repressing its own people.

The Center for a Free Cuba, a Miami-based anti-Castro group, gave a qualified endorsement of Mr. Obama’s moves, while saying it still opposed open tourist travel to the island.

The group said in a statement that it “supports emergency and humanitarian travel to the island; indeed, while strongly opposing all tourist travel by any American, including Cuban-Americans, CFC supports humanitarian and emergency travel by any Americans to the island as often as necessary.”

“The real issue is not whether someone needs to travel to Cuba to be with a very sick relative or with a friend just injured in a serious traffic accident, but the flow of unlimited tourist dollars to the regime, whose military and political police run the tourist industry in Cuba,” it said.

Cuba has been under communist rule since 1959, when Fidel Castro took power in a coup. His brother, Raul, is currently president but has not brought the kind of democratic change to the island that many in the U.S. had hoped he might.

Recent polls have not only shown growing support among Americans for ending the travel ban, but also for resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba and ending the trade embargo.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll of more than a thousand Americans conducted April 3-5 showed that 71 percent of the respondents favored re-opening diplomatic relations between the two countries. Twenty-seven percent opposed any change toward the Communist regime.

When the same question was asked in 2006, 62 percent favored re-establishing relations, and 29 percent opposed it.

A poll of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County conducted in December by the Florida International University Institute found that 55 percent favored discontinuing the trade embargo, and 65 percent supported diplomatic relations.

There were also signs of growing support in Congress for opening up travel to Cuba and ending the trade ban.

A group of senators led by Sens. Byron Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, and Mike Enzi, Wyoming Republican, introduced a bill last month to end the travel ban, and Democratic House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel of New York has co-signed a letter backing legislation to allow trade with the island country.

The U.S. first imposed travel and trade restrictions in 1962 and has maintained these since then except for the five years when President Carter eliminated the restrictions, which were then reinstated by President Reagan.

Mr. Obama will visit the region later this week with a trip to Mexico and then to Trinidad and Tobago for a summit of Central and South American leaders.

Donald Lambro contributed to this report.

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