WH Moves to Loosen Rules on Cuba 05/17 06:06

WH Moves to Loosen Rules on Cuba       05/17 06:06

   

   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 
non-family 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 Daz-Canel'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 Rodrguez 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.

   In 2010, then-President Ral Castro promoted an unprecedented, albeit 
limited opening to the private sector, allowing hundreds of small businesses to 
open. Some of them targeted tourists who came in significant numbers at the end 
of 2014 when Obama announced the new era with the island.

   When Trump announced the new restrictions to Cuba, this private sector 
suffered as tourism declined.

   White House officials said the U.S. would also increase its diplomatic 
presence, which was dramatically scaled back in 2017 in response to a spate of 
unexplained brain injuries suffered by American diplomats, spies and other 
government employees posted to the island.

   The CIA earlier this year determined that it is unlikely that Russia or 
another foreign adversary has used microwaves or other forms of directed energy 
to attack the hundreds of American officials in postings around the globe who 
have attributed symptoms associated with brain injuries to what's come to be 
known as "Havana syndrome."

   An administration official said it did not yet have a conclusion about the 
mysterious health incidents. Officials did not offer a timeline for ramping up 
the U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba.

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