Obama to ease Cuban travel, financial restrictions

Cuba US LawmakersThe Obama administration intends to allow Americans to visit relatives in Cuba and send money back to their families on the communist island nation, senior U.S. officials said Saturday.

President Barack Obama plans to announce the policy change before the Summit of the Americas April 17-19 in Trinidad and Tobago, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made.

Although some restrictions have been eased temporarily in legislation Obama signed last month, lifting the bans would meet a pledge he made during the presidential campaign and could signal a new openness with Cuba.

“The intent is to try to test the waters and see if we can get Cuba to move in another direction,” one official said. “One way of getting the regime to open up may be to let people travel, increase exchanges and get money flowing to the island.”

The official said there is no plan to lift the decades-old embargo on the island and that the move “is just the president fulfilling a campaign promise.”

As a candidate, Obama promised to allow unlimited family travel and remittances to Cuba. “It’s time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and their brothers,” he said in a speech last May in Miami. “It’s time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent on the Castro regime.”

There are growing calls in Congress to repeal restrictions on Cuba.

Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed appointing a special envoy to look into reshaping the overall relationship. Officials said Saturday that Lugar’s idea would be considered.

On March 11, Obama signed legislation that rolled back rules imposed by the Bush administration that limited Cuban travel to just two weeks every three years by Americans and confined visits to immediate family members.

Now, Americans with relatives in Cuba can visit once a year, stay as long as they wish and spend up to $179 a day. Those changes, which affect an estimated 1.5 million Americans, remain in place until the current budget year ends on Sept. 30.

Some lawmakers backed by business and farm groups seeing new opportunities in Cuba are advocating even broader revisions in the trade and travel bans imposed after Fidel Castro took power in Havana in 1959.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators, including Lugar, proposed legislation that would prevent the president from stopping travel to Cuba by all Americans except in cases of war, imminent danger to public health or threats to the physical safety of U.S. travelers.

There is an identical bill in the House with 120 co-sponsors.

The efforts have until now made little headway because of strong political resistance led by Florida’s influential Cuban-American community. But the situation has changed over the past year after Castro ceded power to his brother Raul and Obama won the White House.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday on the policy change.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.