Obama's First Move On Cuba

You can't please all of the people all of the time. That might be the best, if not the only way, to describe the reaction to today's expected announcement that President Obama is lifting the restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba.

(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
In anticipation of this, analysts suggest, a senior administration official anonymously leaked the news to the media early in the day, followed later by an announcement from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs (seen at left in photo, Latin America advisor Dan Restrepo at right) in a routine press conference.

While the U.S. economic and trade embargo will remain firmly in place according to the Administration, Cuban Americans will now be able to visit their relatives as frequently and for as long as they like, as well as increase the amount of money they send to the island.

Under President Bush, Cuban Americans were only allowed to travel to Cuba once every three years for a maximum of 15 days, to spend only $59 a day while there and to send a maximum of $1,200 per year to their entire family still living on the island.

A recently approved appropriations bill opened the door to travel once a year and daily spending to $179.

According to sources, today's change in policy will allow an unlimited amount of financial aid as well as humanitarian packages to be sent to families scrambling to make ends meet. However, the regulations will still prohibit anything from being sent to any senior Castro government officials.

Reports from Washington say the move is also intended to increase communication with the island's residents and increase negotiations to boost services of this type. One possibility is to allow people living outside of Cuba to pay for cell phone services on the island.

Tessie Aral, owner of ABC Charters in Miami, says their "demand has gone up quite a bit in the last 20 days since the last opening occurred." She says they expect to be swamped with people trying to make reservations later in the week.

Her company has already upped the size of their Saturday flights in the summer to a B767 and she is "negotiating other contracts to augment our services."

The Cubans recently overhauled and greatly expanded the terminal handling flights between Cuba and the United States. The head of customs at that terminal showed off the newly installed equipment saying, "We're going to need this if Obama rolls back the Bush restrictions."

Today's announcement, the fulfillment of one of Obama's campaign promises, comes on the eve of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad-Tobago and a Presidential visit to Mexico, all intended to improve relations between the United States and Latin America.

Some members of Congress and hardliners in Miami have already been criticizing the president for any easing of restrictions on Havana without a corresponding improvement in the human rights situation or steps toward democracy on the island. But participants in the Summit of the Americas are just as likely to get on his case for maintaining the economic and trade embargo. Cuba has normal relations with most of the region. The only two remaining countries without diplomatic relations—El Salvador and Costa Rica—have announced that they will be establishing them shortly.

And a number of Cuban Americans activists, academics and Latin American specialists Monday made public a letter sent to the President urging him to use his executive authority to also restore "the rights of people of faith, academics, artists, athletes and cultural leaders and others to travel to Cuba as provided under the law to serve as goodwill ambassadors of our country."

The signers also urge President Obama to resume the twice-year migration talks, unilaterally suspended by the Bush Administration and to seek cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking, law enforcement, hurricane prediction as well as other areas.

The Director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Julia Sweig believes that by limiting what the changes in U.S. Cuba policy Obama is leaving himself open to further pressure for change.

"It is hard for me to believe President Obama believes that only Cuban-Americans are legitimate 'ambassadors' to Cuba," says Sweig. "My guess -- by allowing certain rights to some Americans but not to others, and by doing so on the eve of the Summit when the entire hemisphere has been calling for real change in Cuba policy, Obama is laying the groundwork, consciously perhaps, for an ongoing challenge to what can only be described as a timid, and apparently quite political first move on Cuba. If he wanted to change the conversation away from Cuba, he'd come up with something bolder," she concluded.

Moves are underway in Congress to permit Cuba travel for all Americans but its unclear if bipartisan bills have enough support to over the opposition of Cuban-American lawmakers and others in the House who are demanding that Cuba policy remain unchanged and that it be used to pressure Havana to release all political prisoners and takes other steps toward opening up. But their position is countered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and various agricultural organizations that see Cuba as a much needed new market for U.S. products and those who believe that the more contact there is between the two countries, the more President Raul Castro will be forced in the direction of reforms. As a Cuba expert said years ago, "Change will come to Cuba with Sears, not the CIA."
  • Portia Siegelbaum

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