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US eases travel restrictions to Cuba

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

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.”