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Cuban Americans can go home more easily under Obama rules

'People are celebrating' and travel agents are preparing for more business, though the change stops short of Obama's campaign promise to remove travel limits altogether for Cuban Americans.

March 15, 2009|William E. Gibson

WASHINGTON — Cuban Americans' travel to the communist island nation just got easier under guidelines issued last week by the Obama administration.

The Treasury Department confirmed that Cuban Americans may visit extended relatives as well as close family members once a year and spend as much as $179 a day without fear of prosecution, effective immediately.

The guidelines signal a trend toward looser enforcement of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

"I know people are celebrating today," said Silvia Wilhelm of Miami, director of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, who wants all Americans to be able to visit Cuba.

"I'm sure we'll see an increase in travel, maybe by 20% or 25%," she predicted. "But the main thing is that this addresses a human need for people to see their families."

Many Cuban Americans are eager to get started, and travel providers are gearing up to serve them.

Reinaldo Escobar, 55, of Miami plans to get on a plane to Havana as soon as possible to visit his mother in the hospital. Under the previous rules, he was forbidden from returning to Cuba for two more years. Now he can go without evading the law, which many do by traveling through other countries.

"I have to go no matter what," Escobar said. "People should be able to visit family whenever they want."

Tico Travel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has gotten more calls and e-mails from Cuban Americans wanting to book travel to the island, said co-owner Rob Hodel.

"With general tourism down, this is going to be a bigger piece of our business," said Hodel, who has redesigned his Cuba travel website and plans to hire more staffers.

The actions by Congress and the Treasury Department are expected to reverse the downward trend of travel to Cuba by undoing limits imposed by President Bush in 2004. Under the Bush rules, Cuban Americans could visit only once every three years for no more than 14 days, and could not spend more than $50 a day.

The old rules were rarely enforced but still discouraged travel, according to those who operate direct flights to Cuba. There's no way to know how many Americans go to Cuba, according to the Government Accountability Office, because so many people go through other countries and Cuba obscures travelers' origins.

"Our business obviously suffered because we were obeying the law," said Francisco Aruca, chairman of the board of Marazul Charters, which books flights from Miami and New York.

The new law blocks the government from enforcing the Bush rules. Guidelines issued by the Treasury Department went a step further by making it clear that yearly trips are considered legal. The department's Office of Foreign Assets Control administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions against Cuba and other governments.

The guidelines stop short of President Obama's campaign promise to remove all travel limits for Cuban Americans. He has, however, ordered a review of U.S. policy on Cuba. Many observers expect him to fulfill his campaign pledge in April, just before a summit with Latin American leaders in Trinidad and Tobago.

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Gibson writes for the Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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