U.S to Lift Some Cuba Travel Curbs
By LAURA MECKLER
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama plans to lift longstanding U.S. restrictions on Cuba, a senior administration official said, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit families there as often as they like and to send them unlimited funds.
The gesture, which could herald more openness with the Castro regime, will fulfill a campaign promise and follows more modest action in Congress this year to loosen travel rules.
The president has authority to loosen the restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba on his own. The new rules will affect an estimated 1.5 million Americans who have family members in Cuba. Other Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba but only if they qualify through certain cultural, educational and other programs.
President Obama doesn't intend to call for lifting of the trade embargo against Cuba, which would require congressional action, nor is any specific diplomatic outreach contemplated, the official said.
Advocates for greater openness with Cuba said the move is significant in itself, signaling the Obama administration's willingness to take a fresh look at Cuba policy early in the presidency. However, others argue that overtures to Cuba as long as the Castros are in charge are not likely to foster democracy on the island.
The timing of the announcement is unclear, but several Cuba experts have speculated that it could come ahead of this month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
It will come amid a series of international gestures by President Obama recently. This week, he moved to improve relations with Russia and told an audience in France on Friday that he was there to listen. Previously, he made an outreach to the people of Iran, sending a video message calling for a "new day" of relations between Washington and Tehran.
Last May in a campaign speech in Miami, Mr. Obama said, "It's time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and their fathers, their sisters and their brothers. It's time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent on the Castro regime."
The travel and remittance restrictions stem from the embargo, put in place in 1962 after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. President Jimmy Carter allowed the travel ban to lapse.
But President Ronald Reagan reinstituted the travel ban with some exceptions. Under President Bill Clinton, Cuban-Americans could visit family once a year. President George W. Bush's policy was at one point even looser, but in 2004, he tightened the rules, allowing family trips once every three years, and narrowing the definition of who qualified as family. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers and grandparents qualified, but uncles, aunts and cousins did not.
This year, Congress approved legislation that had the effect of rolling back the Bush rules. As they now stand, family members -- broadly defined -- may visit once a year. The rules on how much money family members can send to Cuba, which date to 1978, have also changed with various administrations, but under Mr. Bush, funds were limited to a maximum of $300 per quarter for each household in Cuba receiving them. Remittances from the U.S. to Cuba now amount to around $700 million a year.
The expected action comes as cries grow louder in Congress to open U.S. policy toward Cuba. A bill introduced this year would allow unlimited travel for any purpose by Americans. Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote Mr. Obama this week calling for a change in U.S. posture toward Cuba and suggested that his administration open a dialogue about how to bring Cuba into the international community.
Mr. Obama has also been under pressure from Latin leaders to make a gesture toward Cuba to start rebuilding regional relations.
Reaction to the expected policy shift was mixed. "The status quo has been unnatural and immoral," said Julia Sweig, a Cuba specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "This will at least allow families to begin to normalize, if not the two countries."
Some Cuban-American circles have pressed to maintain U.S. restrictions because of their antipathy for Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, who replaced him as leader after Fidel became ill. "How do you help people speak out about human rights violations if you're basically extending the dictatorship abroad?" said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC.
—-- Jose de Cordoba and John Lyons contributed to this article.