US to ease Travel Restrictions to Cuba

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the changes to US-Cuba policy which have been rumoured for months are aimed at bolstering Cuba’s civil society and putting distance between Cubans and their communist-led goverment.

“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,” Gibbs said.

A White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide background, said the aim of the changes is “to support the independence of the Cuban people, making them less dependent on the Cuban state and on Cuban authorities.”

The changes restore and increase the amount of money that any American can send to any Cuban to $2,000 annually more than the level it was during before former President George W. Bush tightened sanctions against Cuba. There will be a quarterly limit on the amount that any American can send: $500 per quarter to “support private economic activity.” The Clinton administration had set that figure at $300 a quarter.

The ability to send remittances for such a purpose coincides with the Raul Castro government’s decision to allow an expansion of the private business sector in order to weather an economic crisis.

Castro has announced that the government plans to lay off at least 500,000 state workers by April 1, and hopes that many of them will go into business for themselves as so-called “self-employed.”

The changes come as the Cuban government has earned much international goodwill by freeing more than 40 political prisoners since the summer. But the government remains at loggerheads with Washington over its continued detention of US government subcontractor Alan Gross.

The changes drew quick condemnation from opponents of easing sanctions, who said the changes will prop up the regime in Havana, which controls most of the economy in the country.

“It is unthinkable that the administration would enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “What does need to change are the Cuban regime’s repressive policies towards the independent press and labor unions, its imprisonment of political prisoners and constant harassment of citizens with dissenting views, and its refusal to allow free multiparty elections.”

The administration official said the White House was aware of the risk, but “what we know is that it will put money directly into the pockets of the Cuban people. … We think that enhanced independence … far outweighs any negative that may come in terms of revenue flow.”

Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, said the increase in remittances, along with greater contact with Cubans on the island, “will help to break the chains of dependency that the Castro regime has traditionally used to oppress those inside Cuba.”

“The more we can do to promote their self-reliance, their knowledge of the realities of the outside world, and their independence from the Castro regime, the better are their prospects for democratic change,” he said.

Groups that favor increased engagement with Cuba as a way of pushing for change applauded the move. The White House in March 2009 had expanded travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans with family on the island, but frustrated some groups by leaving many of the other travel restrictions which had been imposed by the Bush administration in place.

The administration is also restoring a category of “people-to-people” travel, which allows for “purposeful” visits to increase contacts between U.S. and Cuban citizens.

“It’s a very broad opening for non-tourist travel,” said Phil Peters, an analyst with the Lexington Institute. “It’s clear he wants a lot more contact between our citizens and less bureaucracy.”

Peters said the changes go beyond Clinton administration policies because they give academic and religious institutions opportunities to travel to Cuba on broader, general licenses.

(Contents of this article were lifted from caribbeannewsnow)

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