- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

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.”

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 also were limited in 2004 to immediate family members.

Mr. Obama's changes will allow Cuban-Americans to travel back to the island to visit extended family as far removed as second cousins and will eliminate time limitations for those visits. It also will allow remittances to be sent to extended family households as long as they do not include senior Cuban government or Communist Party officials.

The remittance limit of $300 every three months was eliminated, and the amount a Cuban American traveling to Cuba could carry with him or her was changed from $300 back to $3,000, the amount allowed before the 2004 tightening of restrictions.

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

If more steps are taken in the future to ease restrictions, Mr. Marcuss said, they likely would involve easing restrictions on the sale of agricultural products and medical equipment to purchasers in Cuba.

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, whose state is one of the largest producers of U.S. beef, called the Obama decision “a good first step,” but said the U.S. “can and should do more.”

“I urge the president to relax restrictions on the sale of U.S. agriculture products to Cuba. We need to make it easier for America's farmers and ranchers to sell their high quality products, including Montana's world-class wheat and barley, to one of our closest markets,” he said.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Obama's decision was “the first step in lifting travel restrictions for all Americans. “The administration has done what it can; congressional action is needed to take the next step,” he said.

Groups such as CANF oppose lifting the broader travel ban, however.

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, Ms. Ruiz-Gallardo said.

“It's slave labor, and we'd be directly supporting that practice by allowing tourist travel,” she said. “We'd be aiding the Cuban regime in repressing its own people.”

Though family visits enrich the Castro regime less than tourist travel does, it does add to the government's coffers. A study by the Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba showed that in 2003, about 125,000 family visits to Cuba brought about $96 million to the Castro government.

Mr. Obama avoided making the announcement himself Monday, sending out Mr. Restrepo and Mr. Gibbs to break the news. Mr. Restrepo, who is half Colombian, spoke for several minutes entirely in Spanish. The White House said it was the first time to its knowledge that an administration made an announcement fully in a foreign language.

Mr. Gibbs denied that Mr. Obama's absence from the announcement was in any way strategic or a product of White House “choreography,” but moments later pointed out that the White House wanted Mr. Restrepo to make the announcement in Spanish for specific reasons.

“I don't know Spanish, the president knows a few words of Spanish. But I think what's important today is we're doing this in a way … so that Cuban Americans can hear loud and clear the steps that the president is taking,” Mr. Gibbs said. “That image that is beamed in there today is in a language that they can all understand and take heart in.”

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. hoped.

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

Polls have shown growing support among Americans for ending the travel ban, for resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba and for ending the trade embargo.

c Donald Lambro contributed to this report.

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