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Biden to lift some Trump-era restrictions on Cuba

A car drives by the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Oct. 30, 2020. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)
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The Biden administration is lifting several Trump-era restrictions on Cuba, including on some aspects of travel to the island, caps on family remittances and the issuance of immigration visas.

A State Department statement described the measures as designed “to further support the Cuban people, providing them additional tools to pursue a life free from Cuban government oppression and to seek greater economic opportunities.”

The decision comes after a lengthy internal review, whose implementation was delayed after a Cuban government crackdown on widespread street protests on the island last summer.

The administration has been under pressure to ease the numbers of migrants crossing the southern U.S. border, where tens of thousands of Cubans have become the second-largest group of those seeking unauthorized entry through Mexico. Last month, the administration and Cuba held direct migration talks for the first time in four years.

Under decades-old bilateral accords, the United States had agreed to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas annually to Cubans in exchange for Cuba’s agreement to accept deportation flights of those who arrived illegally or were deemed otherwise inadmissible.

Those agreements were suspended in 2018 as part of the Trump administration’s reversal of President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba that had led to a restoration of diplomatic relations in 2015. Visas of all types were further limited by sanctions, and the U.S. Embassy and consulate were reduced to skeleton staffs in 2019.

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Under the new measures, the administration will increase capacity at the consulate and reinstate a family reunification parole program.

The Trump-era cap that limited family remittances to $1,000 every three months is to be lifted. A ban on nonfamily remittances will be eased to allow payment to independent Cuban entrepreneurs, and the Treasury Department has issued at least one license to allow direct equity investment in a private Cuban firm.

“We will encourage commercial opportunities outside of the state sector by authorizing access to expanded cloud technology, application programming interfaces, and e-commerce platforms,” the statement said. A senior administration official said they were still exploring ways to allow the direct transfer of money under the new policies, after bank transfers were largely shut down in recent years.

A ban limiting commercial and charter U.S. flights to Havana is also to be lifted, allowing flights to other Cuban cities. U.S. citizen tourism remains prohibited, as does individual travel under most circumstances, but Treasury will now issue licenses for group educational travel.

Cuba is facing a severe economic crisis, caused by a combination of the pandemic and a sharp drop in tourism, and global inflation, as well as continuing U.S. sanctions under the decades-old U.S. trade embargo, which can only be lifted by Congress.

Senior U.S. officials who briefed reporters on the new policy said that President Biden had directed them to come up with options that would both “promote accountability for human rights abuses,” including direct sanctions on individual government and military officials, and “explore meaningful ways to support the Cuban people.”

“Fundamentally, these policies are ones that are designed to advance our own national interests” rather than establish any new relationship with Cuba’s communist government, one official said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the White House.

Although he pledged during his presidential campaign to reverse Trump’s restrictive measures, Biden has been caught between conflicting pressures on Cuba. Senior lawmakers, including a number of Cuban Americans, who have been opposed to easing any of the restrictions were quick to criticize the new initiatives.

“Today’s announcement risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said he was “dismayed” to learn that travel “akin to tourism” would now be allowed. “To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the committee’s ranking Republican, was equally dismissive. “The regime in #Cuba threatened Biden with mass migration and have sympathizers inside the administration and the result is today we see the first steps back to the failed Obama policies on Cuba,” he said on Twitter.

A number of Democrats, however, have been critical of Biden’s failure to make the campaign-promised changes. Saying he was “encouraged by steps in the right direction,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) tweeted that “reversing Trump’s failed strategy & undoing decades of outdated, cold-war policies will take time. I applaud this move towards a smarter strategy of engagement and diplomacy.”

In a statement late Monday, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry called the changes “positive, but of a very limited scope.”

“These announcements in no way modify the blockade,” as Cuba refers to the embargo, “or the main measures of economic siege adopted by Trump, such as the lists of Cuban entities subject to additional coercive measures; nor do they eliminate traveling restrictions for U.S. citizens,” the ministry said.

The ministry attributed the new policy at least in part to “a demand by the community of Latin American and Caribbean states, and virtually all members of the United Nations,” which have for decades each year overwhelmingly denounced the embargo in a U.N. General Assembly vote.

In a potential embarrassment for the administration, a growing number of hemispheric leaders have said they will not attend an America’s summit Biden is to host next month in Los Angeles, after officials indicated Cuba was unlikely to be invited. The senior administration officials said that invitations to the gathering, to begin June 6, still haven’t been issued and final decisions had not been made. But they insisted that the new policy measures were unrelated to that controversy.

“The plan is to send the invitations soon,” one official said. “The host has wide discretion ... we consult with our partners in the region, we have these debates about who to invite, but ultimately it is the prerogative of the host to make that decision.”

The administration has said it does not want “non-democratic” countries, including Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, to attend. In response, the presidents of Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras and several Caribbean states have said they would not attend, while a number of others have indicated they may not show up.

The officials also deflected questions about whether the ostensible reason for reducing the size of the embassy and consulate in the first place — the safety of U.S. diplomats suffering mysterious ailments — has been resolved.

The Trump administration charged that the ailments amounted to an “attack” on the diplomats by the Cuban government. Cuba denied it, and identical ailments subsequently were reported in a range of countries. The cause of the reported maladies has never been determined.

“The President directed us to increase staff ... with the appropriate security posture,” an administration official said. “We have been working over the course of the last several months to put in place a plan to be able to do so. ”

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