WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration announced Monday that 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 immigrants can send to the island. people on the island.
The State Department said in a statement that it will eliminate the current limit of $1,000 per quarter on family remittances and allow non-family remittances, which will support independent Cuban entrepreneurs. The United States will also allow regular and charter flights to places beyond Havana, according to the State Department.
The administration said it will also take steps 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, our goal is to support the aspirations of freedom and greater economic opportunities of Cubans so that they can lead a successful life at home,” added State Department spokesman Ned Price. “We continue to call on the Cuban government to immediately release political prisoners, to respect the fundamental freedoms of the Cuban people, and to allow the Cuban people to determine their own future.”
The policy changes come after a review that began shortly 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 have contributed to an economic crisis in Cuba, where people are experiencing shortages of basic goods, power cuts and rationing.
The economic situation brought thousands of people to the streets of Cuba on July 11, 2021, the largest protests in decades on the island. Many people were frustrated with shortages and low wages, as well as with the socialist government. Non-governmental organizations have reported more than 1,400 arrests and 500 people sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for hooliganism or sedition.
In recent weeks, both the US and Cuban governments have started some talks, amid a surge of Cubans trying to immigrate to the US illegally.
The first week of April, the US Embassy in Havana resumed processing visas for Cubans, albeit on a limited basis, more than four years after suspending consular services on the island amid a souring of relations.
Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the measures send the “wrong message” to the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel. Menéndez was particularly critical of the administration’s decision to reinstate group travel for educational and cultural exchanges, as well as some travel for professional meetings and professional research on the island.
“I am dismayed to learn that the Biden administration will begin authorizing group travel to Cuba through tourism-like visits,” Menendez said. “To be clear, those who still believe that increased travel will bring about democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”
Two senior administration officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, noted that the Treasury Department has the authority to audit groups that organize trips and will make sure the trips are purposeful and in accordance with the US law. The United States is restricting American tourism to the island and will not allow people to travel there for educational purposes, officials said.
An official who defended the move noted that the president has underscored his belief that “Americans are the best ambassadors of democratic values.”
Biden said as a presidential candidate that he would return 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 approach was reversed by Trump, who drastically reduced the remittances that Cuban-Americans could send to relatives on the island, prohibited financial and commercial transactions with most Cuban companies affiliated with the government or the military and, in his In his last days in office, he redesignated Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” in part because of its support for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, said he would suspend all relevant Biden nominees who require Senate confirmation until the decision is reversed.
“Biden can frame this any way he wants, but here’s the truth: This is nothing more than an idiotic attempt to revert to Obama’s failed appeasement policies and a clear sign of support for the evil regime,” Scott said.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said on his Twitter account that the Biden administration’s move is “a limited step in the right direction.” He added that the decision does not change the embargo or most of Trump’s 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 Biden’s moves was spreading slowly, first among people with internet access.
“Beyond the human meaning, because families will get together and there will be a cultural exchange, little by little there will be a flourishing of these entrepreneurs,” said Erich García, a local cryptocurrency expert and programmer, referring to the small businesses that have opened on the island. after some internal political and economic changes, and which gained momentum after the historic thaw in relations with Cuba under the Obama administration.
In 2010, then-President Raúl Castro pushed through an unprecedented, albeit limited, opening to the private sector that allowed hundreds of small businesses to open. Some of them targeted tourists who arrived in significant numbers at the end of 2014 when Obama announced the new era with the island.
When Trump announced the new restrictions on Cuba, this private sector suffered as tourism declined.
White House officials said the United States would also increase its diplomatic presence, which was sharply curtailed 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 Russia or any other foreign adversary is unlikely to have used microwaves or other forms of directed energy to attack the hundreds of US officials in publications around the world who have attributed symptoms associated with brain injury to what is known as Havana”. ”
An administration official said he did not yet have a conclusion on the mysterious health incidents. The officials did not offer a timetable for increasing the US diplomatic presence in Cuba.
Rodríguez reported from Havana.