Obama easing some travel and remittance restrictions

Half a year after first floating the idea, the Obama Administration on Friday announced a number of executive changes to travel and remittance restrictions.

The president directed the departments of State, Treasury and Homeland Security to make the changes “to continue efforts to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their country’s future,” a White House press release said.

Cuban official Website Cubadebate summarized the changes as a return to policies under Bill Clinton, while emphasizing that the overall travel ban is still intact. Government opponents in Cuba generally welcomed the new rules. 

In the United States, the measure met widespread praise, including from the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, once one of the most ardent supporters of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Pepe Hernandez, a director of the group, particularly welcomed the provision that allows all Americans to send money to Cubans, in light of massive layoffs of state workers on the island.

“It’s going to help the interaction between regular Cubans and U.S. citizens,” he told AP. “It’s going to help Cuban people inside the island to gain independence from the Cuban government, especially now that roughly a million will be without jobs.”

Some pro-normalization groups went further, asking for a complete lifting of the travel ban by Congress.

“We clearly see this announcement by the White House as very positive step in the right direction, and we look forward to a surge in travel to Cuba and a move to encourage the Congress to finish the job and actually change the law,” the Washington-based Latin American Working Group told its supporters. 

In what is probably the most significant step in business terms, the administration allowed all U.S. airports with “adequate customs and immigration capabilities” to host Cuba charter flights. A licensed charter service provider must first express interest in offering Cuba flights from that airport. Currently, only Miami, New York and Los Angeles are allowed to host Cuba flights. Particularly airports in the Southeast such as San Juan, Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Atlanta, New Orleans or Houston should be interested in attracting Cuba charter airlines.

“I am confident Tampa International Airport will be first in line to apply for final approval for expanded eligibility,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa), said after the White House announcement in a written statement. Tampa has lobbied the Administration during most of last year to allow Cuba flights from the West Florida city.

The administration passed a series of measures that ease “purposeful travel”, including allowing religious organizations to sponsor religious travel under a “general license.” Under this kind of arrangement, traveling groups won’t have to apply for a specific license anymore. Furthermore,

•Universities and colleges will be allowed to offer travel for course work and academic credit, under a general license. 

•Organizations that operate people-to-people programs can now offer travel for non-academic study, under a specific license.

•Specifically licensed academic institutions can now hold academic seminars, conferences and workshops in Cuba.

•A greater group of journalists can now travel to Cuba, under specific licenses.

Finally, in a gesture of support for the ailing private sector in Cuba, the administration for the first time allowed non-family remittances. Under the new regulations, any U.S. person can now send up to $2,000 per year to non-family members in Cuba “to support private economic activity, among other purposes,” according to the press release. Religious organizations can now send remittances to religious institutions in Cuba under a general license.

The modifications will be enacted within two weeks, according to the White House.

“These measures will increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba, enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people, and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities,” the White House press release said, while emphasizing that the embargo will continue.


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