President Obama today lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba and sending remittances to relatives on the island, and he also ordered his administration to permit U.S. telecommunications firms to do business there. The administration described the actions as "a step to extend a hand to the Cuban people" that will help "ensure that they have more independence from the regime," as the top official for Latin American affairs on the National Security Council, Daniel Restrepo, put it at a White House news conference.
The moves, in part reflecting Obama's campaign promises on Cuba policy, leave in place nearly all of the U.S. economic embargo but do represent the first major moves in a decade or more to alter a policy that is widely criticized as having failed to encourage democracy or human rights in the nearby Communist nation despite nearly half a century of trying. During the campaign, Obama said he would retain the embargo for now as leverage to promote democratic progress in Cuba.
If recent interviews with officials in Havana are a guide, the Cuban government will welcome the removal of restrictions on Cuban-Americans. However, it may well bristle at the administration's emphasis on "creating space" for Cubans to operate apart from their government. Cuban officials say they will accept no preconditions in terms of political steps there in order to launch and sustain a direct dialogue between Havana and Washington that could lead to a normalization of relations. How they will react to U.S. telecommunications firms possibly becoming active on the island is also unclear.
"The president has made clear he's willing to talk with our adversaries," Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said. But, he added, Washington would "not talk for talk's sake." Gibbs also suggested that the next step "in many ways depends on the actions of the Cuban government." In particular, he called for the Cuban government to reduce the fees it charges Cubans for receiving money from American relatives.
The administration's announcement came four days before Obama begins participating in this year's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Latin American leaders there are expected to urge him to remove the economic embargo and end the decades of mutual antipathy between the United States and Cuba.
To facilitate the flow of information into Cuba, where media are state-controlled, Obama wants to allow U.S. companies to provide fiber-optic and satellite communication links between the United States and Cuba, as well as to receive licenses for cellular phone links and satellite TV and radio services into Cuba.
Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that, if successful, the new telecommunications approach "could help bring communication on [Cuba] and between the two countries into the 21st century. This opens the door for real negotiations, and that will require political will in Havana and Washington."
Overall, the administration's steps may be significant in humanitarian terms but do not fundamentally reshape U.S. policy toward Cuba. Non-Cuban Americans still will not be able to travel legally to the island, with some exceptions. The embargo continues.
Some Cuba policy watchers are hoping for more change. "The Obama administration should also consider the benefits for the Cuban people and America's economic and foreign policy interests that could result from broader changes to U.S. policies," said Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues with the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington.