US eases travel restrictions to Cuba

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.”

While further moves by the Obama administration seem unlikely, even if Gross is tried and released in the coming months, other attempts to loosen the embargo in Congress will almost certainly be blocked by the new Republican majority. Friday's move drew immediate criticism from the embargo's passionate defenders, particularly Cuban-American legislators such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who said the measures will "not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them."

As the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Cuban-born Ros-Lehtinen has indicated she opposes any Congressional efforts to chip away at the long-standing trade sanctions, such as last year's failed push to expand agricultural sales to Cuba and lift travel restrictions to the island for all Americans.

The Cuban government was eager to frame Obama's new measures as a “defeat” for the Florida congresswoman, while not giving the White House much praise either. "While the measures leave the blockade intact and do not substantially change Washington's policies, they do reflect a consensus among wide sectors of the North American people in favor of a change in policy," the website Cubadebate said.

Phil Peters, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and author of the Cuban Triangle blog, applauded the moves as a smart policy change.

“The increase in contact between Americans and Cubans will expand the flow of information and ideas, and it will increase the income of Cubans in the country’s expanding private sector,” he wrote, adding, “it is only common sense that American influence in Cuba will expand if we open doors rather than build barriers to citizen contact.”