Obama: Lift U.S.-Cuba Travel Restrictions

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, of Illinois addresses a crowd as he campaigns in Sioux City, Iowa, Monday, Aug. 6, 2007, at Irving Elementary School. (AP Photo/Sioux City Journal, Jerry Mennenga) **NO SALES, MAGS OUT**
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Tuesday said the Bush administration blundered by tightening restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to visit the island or send money home and promised to reverse the measures if elected.

The Illinois senator said the restrictions, imposed in 2004, isolated the communist island from "the transformative message carried there by Cuban Americans." He promised to grant Cuban exiles unrestricted rights to visit their families and to send remittances home.

"The primary means we have of encouraging positive change in Cuba today is to help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime in fundamental ways," Obama wrote in an op-ed piece published in The Miami Herald.

"Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made grand gestures to that end while strategically blundering when it comes to actually advancing the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba," he added.

While the U.S. embargo has limited who can travel to Cuba and what can be sent there since the early 1960s, Bush's restrictions made visiting and shipping gifts to Cuba more difficult.

Now most Cuban-Americans can only visit the island once every three years and can only send quarterly remittances of up to $300 per household to immediate family members. Previously, they could visit once a year and send up to $3,000. The U.S. also tightened restrictions on travel for educational and religious groups.

The Cuban-exile vote is considered key to winning Florida, and top presidential candidates have generally followed the recommendations of the community's most hard-line and vocal leaders, who support a full embargo against Fidel Castro's government. Castro, 80, is in poor health and turned over temporary power last year to his brother Raul.

But sentiment in the Cuban-American community is changing. Unlike the early waves of immigrants who brought their entire family, often by plane, to the U.S., most Cubans now flee by boat and are forced to leave relatives behind. Fewer of these immigrants were overt political opponents of the government, and they want to be able to visit loved ones and to send money home.

Many Cuban exiles are also frustrated with the U.S. embargo, which has failed to yield fruit after nearly 45 years. And with the specter of an ailing Castro and a possible change in leadership, they are more open to changing U.S. policy.