The Punxsutawney Spirit

White House moves to loosen remittance, flight rules on Cuba

- By Zeke Miller, Andrea Rodriguez and Aamer Madhani

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administra­tion says it will expand flights to Cuba, take steps to loosen restrictio­ns on U.S. travelers to the island, and lift Trump-era restrictio­ns on remittance­s that immigrants can send to people on the island.

The State Department said in a statement Monday that it will remove the current $1,000-per-quarter limit on family remittance­s and will allow nonfamily remittance, which will support independen­t Cuban entreprene­urs. The U.S. will also allow scheduled and charter flights to locations beyond Havana, according to the State Department.

The administra­tion said it will also move to reinstate the Cuban Family Reunificat­ion Parole Program, which has a backlog of more than 20,000 applicatio­ns, and increase consular services and visa processing.

“With these actions, we aim to support Cubans’ aspiration­s for freedom and for greater economic opportunit­ies so that they can lead successful lives at home,” State Department spokesman Ned Price added. “We continue to call on the Cuban government to immediatel­y release political prisoners, to respect the Cuban people’s fundamenta­l freedoms and to allow the Cuban people to determine their own futures.”

The policy changes come after a review that began soon after a series of widespread protests on the island last July.

Former President Donald Trump had increased sanctions against Cuba, including the cancellati­on of permits to send remittance­s and the punishment of oil tankers bound for the island.

These measures and the pandemic contribute­d to an economic crisis in Cuba, where people suffer from shortages of basic products, power outages and rationing.

The economic situation led thousands of people to the streets across Cuba on July 11, 2021 — the largest such protests in decades on the island. Many people were frustrated with shortages and low salaries, as well with the socialist government. Nongovernm­ental organizati­ons have reported more than 1,400 arrests and 500 people sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for vandalism or sedition.

In recent weeks, both the U.S. and the Cuban government­s have started some conversati­ons, amid a surge of Cubans trying to emigrate illegally to the U.S.

The first week of April, the U.S. Embassy in Havana resumed processing visas for Cubans, though on a limited basis, more than four years after stopping consular services on the island amid a hardening of relations.

Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the moves send the “wrong message” to Cuban President Miguel DíazCanel’s government. Menendez was particular­ly critical of the administra­tion decision to reinstate travel by groups for educationa­l and cultural exchanges as well as some travel for profession­al meetings and profession­al research on the island.

“I am dismayed to learn the Biden administra­tion will begin authorizin­g group travel to Cuba through visits akin to tourism,” Menendez said. “To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”

Two senior administra­tion officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, noted that the Treasury Department has the authority to audit groups that are organizing travel and will ensure that travel is purposeful and in accordance with U.S. law. The U.S. is restrictin­g American tourism on the island and won’t allow individual­s to travel there for educationa­l purposes, officials said.

One official defending the move noted that the president has underscore­d his belief that “Americans are the best ambassador­s for democratic values.”

Biden said as a presidenti­al candidate that he would revert to Obama-era policies that loosened decades of embargo restrictio­ns on Havana. Meanwhile, Republican­s accused him of not being supportive enough of Cuban dissidents.

President Barack Obama’s rapprochem­ent was reversed by Trump, who sharply curtailed remittance­s that Cuban Americans were allowed to send to relatives on the island, barred financial and commercial transactio­ns with most Cuban companies affiliated with the government or military and, in his final days in office, redesignat­ed Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” in part for its support of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said he would put a hold on all relevant Biden nominees requiring Senate confirmati­on until the decision is reversed.

“Biden can frame this however he wants, but this is the truth: this is nothing but an idiotic attempt to return to Obama’s failed appeasemen­t policies and clear sign of support for the evil regime,” Scott said.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said on his Twitter account called the Biden administra­tion move “a limited step in the right direction”. He added that the decision doesn’t change the embargo nor most of Trump measures against the island.

“To know the real scope of this announceme­nt, we must wait for the publicatio­n of the regulation that will determine its applicatio­n,” he said.

In Havana, news of the Biden moves was spreading slowly, first among people with access to the internet.

“Beyond the human significan­ce, because families will reunite and there will be a cultural exchange, there will be a blossom of these entreprene­urs little by little,” said Erich Garcia, a programmer and local cryptocurr­ency expert, referring to the small businesses that opened on the island after some internal political and economic changes, and that got a boost after the historic thaw of relations with Cuba under the Obama administra­tion.

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