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US eases travel restrictions to Cuba

Analysis: Obama relaxes rules, though further improvements unlikely for US-Cuba relations.

Cuba travel restrictions, tourists
A tourist shouts as she looks at the waves hitting the Malecon waterfront in Havana, Dec. 13, 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

HAVANA, Cuba — It's been a long-held tenet of U.S. foreign policy that American leaders shouldn't ease the 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba without getting something from the Castro government in return.

So when the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama announced Friday it would allow more Americans to travel to the island and send cash there, in addition to other minor changes, the move raised the question: Why now?

The administration had been floating its proposed changes to Cuba experts and journalists since last fall, but with U.S. government contractor Alan Gross still held in a Cuban jail without charges after 13 months, the measures seemed to undermine American insistence that Gross' ongoing detention is a roadblock to better relations.

Do the gestures reflect a belief that Gross will be released soon? Possibly. Are further steps to ease the embargo forthcoming? Probably not.

The White House measures make it easier for Americans affiliated with religious groups and academic institutions to travel to Cuba, the only country in the world the U.S. government restricts its own citizens from visiting.

Under the new rules, any American — not just those with family on the island — will be able to send up to $500 to Cuba every three months. The measures will also allow more U.S. airports to set up charter flight services to the island (the flights are now limited to Miami, New York and Los Angeles).

Similar travel policies were in place under the Clinton administration, but were later rolled back by President George W. Bush.

For ordinary Cubans and the Castro government alike, there will be significant financial benefits to Obama's moves, as more dollar-wielding U.S. visitors are added to the 400,000 or so who flew in last year, mostly Cuban Americans with family to visit. Obama lifted restrictions on those travelers in 2009, and last year — despite the remaining ban on most other forms of travel to Cuba — the United States had already become the second-largest source of foreign visitors to the island, after Canada.

Cubans starting micro-businesses and going to work for themselves as a result of Raul Castro's recent economic reforms might be among the biggest beneficiaries, especially those who rent rooms to tourists and operate small restaurants in their homes.

The timing of the White House announcement has fueled speculation Cuba might finally bring charges against Gross, clearing the way for his possible return to the United States. The measures were unveiled one day after State Department officials visiting Cuba for semi-annual migration talks with the Castro government told reporters they were optimistic that the Cuban authorities would resolve Gross' case.

The 61-year-old American was arrested in December 2009 while attempting to install unauthorized satellite equipment on the island. He had been posing as a tourist. While the U.S. government insists he is a harmless aid worker, Cuban officials have said they believe he is a spy.

Some have speculated that Cuba arrested Gross to slow the momentum that had been building toward lifting travel restrictions, which could bring an unwieldy flood of U.S. tourists to the island. And policymakers in the Obama administration don't necessarily view the presence of more U.S. students and religious travelers as a reward to the Castro government.

Instead, the Obama administration said its goal is encourage “purposeful” travel to Cuba and increased contact between Americans and Cubans, building support for democratic reforms through personal relationships.

“The President believes these actions, combined with the continuation of the embargo, are important steps in reaching the widely shared goal of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens,” the statement from the White House read. “These steps build upon the President’s April 2009 actions to help reunite divided Cuban families; to facilitate greater telecommunications with the Cuban people; and to increase humanitarian flows to Cuba.”