Obama Lifts Restrictions on Cuban-Americans

Fulfilling a key campaign promise, U.S. President Barack Obama Monday lifted all restrictions on Cuban-Americans to visit their homeland and send money to family members there.

In an executive order, Obama also authorized U.S. telecommunications companies to apply for licenses to do business in Cuba in what the White House described as an effort to increase the flow of information to the Cuban people.

In addition, current limits on the kinds and quantity of humanitarian-related goods that can be sent to Cuba from the U.S. will also be eased, according to the order which marked the first substantive changes in Washington’s policy toward the Caribbean island since Obama became president nearly three months ago.

The moves, coming on the eve of the Fifth Summit of the Americas to be held in Trinidad and Tobago later this week, were welcomed by organizations and activists who have long called for concrete steps to lift the nearly 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba., some of whom, however, expressed disappointment that Obama did not go further.

"These are welcome steps, but the right course is to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba, to open up commerce, and to directly engage the Cuban government in diplomacy and solving problems in both countries’ interests," said Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA).

"The president has a historic opportunity, not to be the last president of the Cold War, but the first president to turn the page in U.S.-Cuba relations. I think he will do more, and that this will be the first of many steps toward better relations with Cuba," she added.

At the same time, hard-line anti-Castro Cuban Americans deplored Obama’s decision. "President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship," said Florida Republican Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart.

"Unilateral concessions to the dictatorship embolden it to further isolate, imprison and brutalize pro-democracy activists, to continue to dictate which Cubans and Cuban-Americans are able to enter the island, that this unilateral concession provides the dictatorship with critical financial support," the two brothers said.

Other more moderate Cuban-American lawmakers, including Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, echoed the Diaz-Balarts’ concern that the government of President Raul Castro will benefit financially, especially by the lifting of limits to Cuban-American remittances, but also stressed that Obama’s decision was "good news for Cuban families separated by the lack of freedom in Cuba" and "should provide help to families in need."

That Obama would ease limits imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, on the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel and send money to their families in Cuba had been anticipated since his election, if for no other reason than he had personally promised to do so in a major policy address on U.S.-Latin American relations delivered before one of the most important Cuban-American organizations, the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), in Miami last May. In the same speech, however, he promised to maintain the embargo as "leverage" to prod Havana into adopting democratic reforms.

That he would make the announcement before the Trinidad summit was also widely anticipated, as virtually all the heads of state with whom Obama will be meeting – notably Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who raised the issue in talks with the new president at the White House just last month – have called for Washington to end the embargo and normalize ties with Havana.

But the administration’s hopes – recently expressed by its top sherpa to the summit, former Amb. Jeffrey Davidow – that Monday’s announcement would all but remove Cuba from the agenda are unlikely to be realized, according to William LeoGrande, a Cuba specialist and dean of the School of Government at American University.

"I don’t think most Latin American heads of state are going to be too impressed by this," he told IPS. "They’ve asked for a new departure by the U.S. toward Cuba, and this is really not a new departure."

Since his election, majorities in Congress have voted to ease the embargo. In an omnibus appropriations bill approved last month, they prohibited the Treasury Department, which enforces key provisions in the embargo, from spending any money to enforce limits on the travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans. Legislators also authorized the granting of a general license for travel to Cuba for U.S. companies that wish to sell agricultural and medical goods there. Both moves had the effect of repealing restrictions imposed by Bush.

Legislation that was introduced in both houses of Congress last month, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, would extend to all U.S. citizens the right to travel to Cuba and is considered to have a better than even chance of passage by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.

In addition, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar, has for the first time taken a leadership role in calling on the president both to lift all travel restrictions and to fully engage Havana diplomatically both bilaterally, on issues such as drug trafficking, energy, and immigration, and in multilateral forums, such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the International Monetary Fund, from which Washington has sought to exclude Cuba for decades.

At the same time, the U.S. business community, including the National Foreign Trade Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have been calling for ending the embargo altogether. In a statement issued Monday, the Chamber said it was "very encouraged" by Obama’s announcement but added that it "is only one step forward. … [U]ltimately, we would like to see an end to the Cuban trade embargo."

In this context, Obama’s announcement fell short of the hopes of an increasingly broad coalition of groups and institutions that favors normalizing ties with Havana across the board. Many groups thought that Obama would couple his announcement on easing restrictions on Cuban Americans with new orders that would facilitate scientific, educational, cultural, and other kinds of people-to-people travel and exchanges of the kind that were initiated under former President Bill Clinton but subsequently frozen by Bush. The White House indicated that such a move was still under review.

"It would have been easiest to relax these kinds of travel restrictions as a package along with easing restrictions for Cuban Americans," said LeoGrande. "I think the reason they didn’t is simply that the foreign policy agenda is so full that having to battle with recalcitrant members of Congress about Cuba is something they felt they just don’t have time for now."

But LeoGrande stressed that Obama, by eliminating all restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans, has actually gone beyond what was permitted under Clinton and could have a major impact on Cuba’s economy. Under Bush, Cuban Americans could visit the island only once a year and send a maximum of $75 a month.

"That was a lot less than what immigrants send to the Dominican Republic or El Salvador, and Cuban Americans are much wealthier, so they could send a lot more," according to LeoGrande, who noted that, before Bush’s restrictions, Cuban Americans were sending about $1 billion a year to their families on the island.

Still, some normalization advocates said it was inappropriate for Obama to limit travel and other rights to Cuban Americans, with Stephen Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program of the New American Foundation (NAF), calling it "cynical and insufficient."

"That our first African-American president would issue an executive order that created openings for a specific class of ethnic Americans – in this case, Cuban Americans – and not for all is not what this democracy is about," he said. "This is not how we approached Vietnam; we didn’t tell Vietnamese Americans to lead the way."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.