WASHINGTON AND MEXICO CITY — The Obama administration announced Monday that it would permit unlimited travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans and lift limits on transfers of money to relatives on the Caribbean island while keeping in place many long-standing U.S. trade restrictions.
Obama's moves make good on a campaign promise and seek to take advantage of shifting winds in Havana as Raul Castro, who formally took over from his ailing brother Fidel a year ago, adopts limited reforms. They also serve to blunt pressure Obama was likely to face at this week's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where Latin American leaders, who unanimously favor improved relations with the communist government, were expected to make the case to the U.S. president.
Momentum has been building for change in U.S. policies toward Cuba, and Obama's decision marks a significant departure from past administrations. Still, it falls short of what many critics, in the U.S. and abroad, have been demanding. A bill before Congress would lift the travel ban on all Americans, not just Cuban Americans visiting family.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that the State, Treasury and Commerce departments would lift all restrictions on the visits of family members to Cuba and remittances as a way to "help bridge the gap between divided Cuban families." The goal, he said, is to promote greater freedom and human rights in the nation run by the Castros for half a century.
The measures will allow "families to visit families [and] allow families to send back some of their hard-earned money" to Cuba, Gibbs said, suggesting the president views closer relations among families as the key to a freer Cuba.
Aides to Obama said relaxing the rules also represented an effort to aid Cubans by making them less dependent on the Castro government, while continuing to hold it to account through the embargo.
In addition to easing travel and remittances, the new rules expand the list of gifts Cuban Americans can send to their families in Cuba and allow U.S. telecommunications companies to do business there. The Bush administration tightened restrictions on Cuban travel, limiting passage to the island to two weeks every three years for immediate family only. Under President Clinton, Cuban Americans could visit their relatives once a year. Bush had also restricted remittances to the sender's immediate family, with a cap of $300 quarterly.
About 1.5 million Americans have relatives in Cuba.
In his campaign for the White House, Obama had promised to ease travel restrictions, and the Democrat garnered an unusually high share of the Cuban American vote in Miami.
Underscoring the changing politics of Florida's Cuban American community, the announcement drew support even from the state's Republican senator -- himself a Cuban American immigrant and former national GOP chairman who has backed tough anti-Castro policies. In a statement, Mel Martinez called the new policy "good news for Cuban families separated by the lack of freedom in Cuba."
Still, Obama came under fire from some conservatives, who accused him of ceding too much ground to the Castro brothers. Republican U.S. Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, brothers who each represent largely Cuban American districts in the Miami area, issued a joint statement charging that Obama was committing a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban American travel and remittance dollars.
Travel by Americans who do not have family in Cuba remains prohibited, but there are several exemptions, including for journalists, academics and people on humanitarian missions. Others have long found ways around the prohibition, often entering Cuba from Mexico or Canada.
Nowhere has the call for normalizing relations with Cuba been stronger than in Latin America, where Obama is venturing later this week for the first time in his presidency. After a stop in Mexico on Thursday, he is to travel to Trinidad for a meeting of 34 of the hemisphere's heads of state and government. Cuba was not invited.
Among Latin American leaders, policy on Cuba has become something of a litmus test to measure the U.S. president's commitment to improving tattered relations with the region. However, the Obama administration has been keen to prevent Cuba from dominating the summit agenda.
Jeffrey Davidow, the White House special advisor on the summit, said the U.S. government would continue to stress human rights and democracy as factors influencing relations with Cuba. "The fact is, in today's hemisphere, Cuba is the odd man out," Davidow said last week.
Josefina Vidal, head of the North American section of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, suggested it was the U.S. that is the odd man out. Shortly after Fidel Castro took power, Washington broke relations with Havana and persuaded most of the hemisphere to follow suit. Every country has since reversed itself, except the U.S.