Tuesday, August 17, 2010

U.S. Said to Plan Easing Rules for Travel to Cuba

U.S. Said to Plan Easing Rules for Travel to Cuba
Franklin Reyes/Associated Press
Published: August 16, 2010

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is planning to expand
opportunities for Americans to travel to Cuba, the latest step aimed at
encouraging more contact between people in both countries, while leaving
intact the decades-old embargo against the island's Communist
government, according to Congressional and administration officials.

The officials, who asked not to be identified because they had not been
authorized to discuss the policy before it was announced, said it was
meant to loosen restrictions on academic, religious and cultural groups
that were adopted under President George W. Bush, and return to the
"people to people" policies followed under President Bill Clinton.

Those policies, officials said, fostered robust exchanges between the
United States and Cuba, allowing groups — including universities, sports
teams, museums and chambers of commerce — to share expertise as well as
life experiences.

Policy analysts said the intended changes would mark a significant shift
in Cuba policy. In early 2009, President Obama lifted restrictions on
travel and remittances only for Americans with relatives on the island.

Congressional aides cautioned that some administration officials still
saw the proposals as too politically volatile to announce until after
the coming midterm elections, and they said revisions could still be made.

But others said the policy, which does not need legislative approval,
would be announced before Congress returned from its break in
mid-September, partly to avoid a political backlash from outspoken
groups within the Cuban American lobby — backed by Senator Robert
Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey — that oppose any softening in
Washington's position toward Havana.

Those favoring the change said that with a growing number of polls
showing that Cuban-Americans' attitudes toward Cuba had softened as
well, the administration did not expect much of a backlash.

"They have made the calculation that if you put a smarter Cuba policy on
the table, it will not harm us in the election cycle," said one
Democratic Congressional aide who has been working with the
administration on the policy. "That, I think, is what animates this."

Mr. Menendez, in a statement, objected to the anticipated changes. "This
is not the time to ease pressure on the Castro regime," he said,
referring to President Raúl Castro of Cuba, who took office in 2006
after his brother, Fidel, fell ill. Mr. Menendez added that promoting
travel would give Havana a "much needed infusion of dollars that will
only allow the Castro brothers to extend their reign of oppression."

In effect, the new policy would expand current channels for travel to
Cuba, rather than create new ones. Academic, religious and cultural
groups are now allowed to travel under very tight rules. For example,
students wanting to study in Cuba are required to stay at least 10
weeks. And only accredited universities can apply for academic visas.

Under the new policy, such restrictions would be eased, officials said.
And academic institutions, including research and advocacy groups and
museums, would be able to seek licenses for as long as two years.

In addition, the administration is also planning to allow flights to
Cuba from more cities than the three — Miami, New York and Los Angeles —
currently permitted. And there are proposals, the officials said, to
allow all Americans to send remittances or charitable donations to
churches, schools and human rights groups in Cuba.

Some analysts said the measures were partly a response to pressure from
an unlikely alliance of liberal political groups and conservative
business associations — led by Senator John Kerry, head of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee — who have been pushing Congress to lift all
restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Others described it as a nod to President Castro's stunning decision
last month to begin releasing dozens of political prisoners.

"It's a way of fostering greater opening and exchange without a bruising
battle with a much-needed political ally in an election year," said
Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Council of the
Americas. "But it can still be legitimately couched as a way of
supporting democracy and human rights by allowing independent exchange
and thought."

As with everything concerning Cuba, the new policy seems fraught with
complications. President Obama, who came to office promising to open new
channels of engagement with Cuba, has so far had limited those new
openings to Cuban-Americans, partly because of political concerns, and
also because his administration's attention had been focused on more
pressing foreign policy matters, including two wars.

"I don't think the administration believes this will produce palpable
change in the short term," said Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign
Relations. "But it's a way over the long term to allow Americans and
Cubans to have contact, even as their governments continue to hash out a
lot of seriously thorny issues."

High on the United States' list of issues is winning the release of an
American contractor who was detained in Cuba nine months ago when the
authorities said they caught him distributing satellite telephones to
Jewish dissidents. The contractor, Alan P. Gross, had gone to Cuba
without the proper visa as part of longstanding program by the
organization Usaid, in which development workers conduct activities
aimed at strengthening groups that oppose the Castro government.

"We're dealing with a relationship that's so contorted, it would take
another 50 years of incremental steps to pull it apart and reassemble it
in a constructive way," said Robert Pastor, a professor of international
relations at American University. "Even then, we're having trouble
taking baby steps, when what we need is a giant leap."

A version of this article appeared in print on August 17, 2010, on page
A4 of the New York edition.


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