Life is getting a little easier for the citizens of Cuba, with more flights allowed, but this is far from carte blanche for the tourism industry.
The United States on Monday announced a series of steps to review its policy toward Cuba, including easing some Trump-era restrictions on family remittances and travel to the island and a drastic increase in US visa processing for Cubans.
The measures, which were implemented after a lengthy review by the US government, mark the most significant changes in the US approach to Havana since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.
But the announcement stopped short of returning US-Cuban relations to the historic rapprochement crafted by former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president. That included a less restricted flow of remittances, fewer travel restrictions and faster visa services.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that the measures announced Monday were to “further support the Cuban people, giving them additional tools to lead a life free from the oppression of the Cuban government and seek greater economic opportunities.
The State Department said the US would lift the limit on family remittances, previously set at $1,000 per quarter, and authorize remittances of donations to non-family members.
But he made it clear that the US would not remove entities from the Cuba Restricted List, a State Department list of companies aligned with the Cuban government and military with which US companies and citizens are prohibited from doing business.
“We are going to make sure that remittances flow more freely to the Cuban people, without enriching those who perpetrate human rights abuses,” an administration official said.
The US will use “electronic payment processors” for remittances to prevent funds from going directly to the Cuban government, an official said, adding that the US had already engaged with the Cuban government “on establishing of a civilian prosecutor for this.
Biden officials have been aware that easing restrictions on the communist-ruled island could lead to political fallout among conservative Cuban-Americans, a key voting bloc in South Florida that largely backed former President Donald Trump’s tough policies on Cuba. .
Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement: “Today’s announcement risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons.”
Trump has cut visa processing, restricted remittances, reduced flights and increased obstacles for US citizens seeking to travel to Cuba for anything other than family visits.
There were few details on how the new policy would be implemented, but officials said the steps would be rolled out in the coming weeks.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, in a Twitter post, called the US announcement “a limited step in the right direction.”
“The decision does not change the embargo, (Cuba’s) fraudulent inclusion on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, or most of Trump’s maximum pressure coercive measures that still affect the Cuban people,” he said.
Among the changes is a plan to reinstate the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which had provided a legal way for Cuban families to reunite in the US, and increase the capacity of consular services.
Washington will aim to issue 20,000 immigrant visas a year, the official said, in line with an immigration deal. The Biden administration is looking to expand embassy staff to handle the backlog, but it was unclear how and when that might happen.
The US embassy in Havana began issuing a trickle of immigrant visas to Cubans this month, fulfilling an earlier promise to restart visa processing on the island after a four-year hiatus.
The Biden administration will also expand authorized travel to Cuba, allowing regular and charter flights to use airports other than Havana, according to the State Department.
Washington will also reinstate some categories of group educational travel, as well as certain travel related to professional meetings and research.
However, individual “person-to-person” travel will not be reinstated. The category was removed by Trump officials who said it was abused by Americans on beach vacations.
The United States will also increase support for independent Cuban entrepreneurs, with the goal of facilitating Internet access and expanding access to microfinance and training, among other measures.
Biden promised during the 2020 election to re-engage with Cuba. But Havana’s crackdown following widespread protests on the island last July led instead to sanctions on Cuban officials.
The Cuban government attributes the protests to US interference.
“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,” Price said.
Officials said no decision has been made on whether to invite Cuba to the US-hosted Summit of the Americas next month. Mexico and others have threatened not to attend unless all countries of the Americas are invited.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Matt Spetalnick, and Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington and David Sherwood in Havana; Editing by Mary Milliken and Rosalba O’Brien)
This article was written by Matt Spetalnick, Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk of Reuters and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].