U.S. preparing to ease travel restrictions to Cuba

Aug. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Bloomberg's Nicole Gaouette reports on the possibility that President Barack Obama may ease travel restrictions to Cuba. Obama may allow more Americans to visit the island on educational and cultural trips, says a U.S. official who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak on the subject. Gaouette talks with Bloomberg's Julie Hyman and Mark Crumpton. (Source: Bloomberg)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The White House is preparing measures that would expand opportunities for Americans to travel to Cuba and send money there, congressional and Obama administration officials said Tuesday.

The measures would make it easier for Americans to get U.S. government licenses for cultural, educational and sports exchanges, according to congressional aides briefed on the new policy. They would not end the longtime economic embargo or the ban on U.S. tourists visiting the island.

The changes would restore a policy from the Bill Clinton administration that encouraged "people-to-people" contacts with residents of the Communist-ruled nation, officials said. Such visits were limited by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 and later restricted further by the George W. Bush administration.

"These are not revolutionary," one congressional staff member said of the changes. "They're not going to cause political blowback, because we did all this stuff before." Like other officials, the staffer spoke on the condition of anonymity because the new policy has not yet been announced.

Others predicted that the changes would stir opposition. Although the measures do not need congressional approval, "it would be very poor judgment on [the White House's] part not to be responsible to the Congress . . . in giving them the proper heads-up. This is an election year. Everything is toxic," said a senior GOP aide familiar with the issue, who said the administration has not briefed key Republicans.

Since the stricter regulations on travel took effect in 2004, U.S. outreach to the Cuban people has largely been channeled through official democracy programs.

Those efforts have had limited results, in part because "the covert political nature of these programs has put at risk not only U.S. operatives, but also their beneficiaries" in Cuba, according to a recent report by the U.S.-Cuba Relations Project of the Brookings Institution. Andy Gomez, a University of Miami professor and a report author, said the expansion of people-to-people programs would come at a critical time, coinciding with a growth in civil-society groups, including a lively bloggers' community, in economically strapped Cuba.

"The time is ripe for us to build bridges with the Cuban people," he said.

But Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a prominent Cuban American legislator, said the timing was wrong. "Promoting travel and widespread remittances will give the regime a much-needed infusion of dollars that will only allow the Castro brothers to extend their reign of oppression and human rights violations," he said in a statement.

Several people familiar with the new measures said they could be made public within days or weeks. They are undergoing final scrutiny but have been discussed at White House principals' meetings, according to those interviewed.

The measures will provide more leeway for Americans who are not of Cuban descent to send donations. Also being discussed is an expansion of telecommunication links, officials said.

President Obama last year loosened restrictions on Cuban Americans' visits and remittances to the island. Relations between Washington and Havana, however, have been rocky. Among the irritants is the detention of Alan P. Gross, a USAID contractor being held without charge in Havana since December. Gross had been bringing computer gear into the country secretly.

Cuban authorities' announcement last month that they would free 52 political prisoners has provided an opening for the new U.S. measures, analysts said, although the administration has been discussing the changes for months.

"It's a little easier to do it, given the political prisoners' release. But I think they were going to do it anyway," said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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