WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama directed his administration Monday to allow unlimited travel and money transfers by Cuban Americans to family in Cuba, and to take other steps to ease U.S. restrictions on the island, a senior administration official told The Associated Press.
The formal announcement was being made at the White House Monday afternoon, during presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs' daily briefing with reporters. The official spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the announcement.
With the changes, Obama aims to lessen Cubans' dependence on the Castro regime, hoping that will lead them to demand progress on political freedoms, the official said. About 1.5 million Americans have relatives in Cuba.
Obama had promised to take these steps as a presidential candidate. It has been known for over a week that he would announce them in advance of his attendance this weekend at a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
"There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans," Obama said in a campaign speech last May in Miami, the heart of the U.S. Cuban-American community. "It's time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It's time to let Cuban American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime."
Other steps taken Monday include expanding the things allowed in gift parcels being sent to Cuba, such as clothes, personal hygiene items, seeds, fishing gear and other personal necessities.
The administration also will begin issuing licenses to allow telecommunications and other companies to provide cell and television services to people on the island, and to allow family members to pay for relatives on Cuba to get those services, the official said.
Last May, former President George W. Bush announced a new policy that people living in the United States could include cell phones in gift parcels sent to Cubans. At the time, Bush aides said that U.S. residents could pay for the cell service attached to phones they send.
However, though American cell phones with service contracts from the U.S. work on some parts of the island, service is not always reliable and depends on the phones' specifications.
Sending money to senior government officials and Communist Party members remains prohibited under Obama's new policy. Restrictions imposed by the Bush administration had limited Cuban travel by Americans to just two weeks every three years. Visits also were confined to immediate family members.
Also in that Miami speech nearly a year ago, Obama promised to depart from what he said had been the path of previous politicians on Cuba policy — "they come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington, and nothing changes in Cuba."
"Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy," he said then. "This is the terrible and tragic status quo that we have known for half a century — of elections that are anything but free or fair; of dissidents locked away in dark prison cells for the crime of speaking the truth. I won't stand for this injustice, you won't stand for this injustice, and together we will stand up for freedom in Cuba."
He also promised to engage in direct diplomacy with Cuba, "without preconditions" but with "careful preparation" and "a clear agenda."
Some lawmakers, backed by business and farm groups seeing new opportunities in Cuba, are advocating wider revisions in the trade and travel bans imposed after Fidel Castro took power in Havana in 1959.
But the official said that Obama is keeping the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba in place, arguing that that policy provides leverage to pressure the regime to free all political prisoners as one step toward normalized relations with the U.S.
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