WASHINGTON — In a measured break with a half-century of U.S. policy toward communist Cuba, the Obama administration lifted restrictions Monday on Cuban-Americans who want to travel and send money to their island homeland.
In a further gesture of openness, U.S. telecommunications firms were freed to seek business there, too. But the broader U.S. trade embargo remained in place.
The White House portrayed its changes, which fulfilled one of President Barack Obama's campaign promises, as a path to promoting personal freedom in one of the few remaining communist nations. They also marked another major step away from the foreign policy priorities of the Bush administration.
But the moves fell far short of the more drastic policy adjustments that some — including Republican Sen. Richard Lugar — have argued are required to promote U.S. interests in Latin America and to bring about change in Cuba. For most Americans, Cuba remains the only country in the world their government prohibits them from visiting — a barrier to potential travelers as well as to the Cuban tourist industry that would like to see them.
Cubans welcomed the changes but said more should be done.
"It's help that the people really need," Fermina Gonzalez, a 46-year-old housewife in the leafy Havana neighborhood of Vedado, said of the ending of limits on money sent by Cuban-Americans. "Right now, we have to work lots of jobs just to make ends meet."
But few Cubans expect Obama to end the trade embargo or allow American tourists to visit the island without limits.
"He should do more and lift travel restrictions for all Americans," said Alberto Sal, a 68-year-old retiree. "Until he does that, I don't think he's doing much."
Lifting or substantially easing the economic embargo, as set forth in the Cuban Assets Control Regulations and administered by the Treasury Department, would require legislative action by Congress. The White House made no mention of any intention to seek such changes; Obama said as a presidential candidate that the embargo was a form of leverage to press for democratic reforms in Cuba.
Julia Sweig, director of Latin studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, described Obama's changes as "teensy, weensy" and said they appear to be driven more by domestic political calculations that by foreign policy considerations.
"This is a cautious first step by a president whose political advisers are looking at the Florida electoral vote," she said in a telephone interview, "and who are not looking at this as a matter of foreign policy. That's the big problem with Cuba policy. We have a policy toward Miami and not toward Havana."
Sweig added, however, that Obama's decision to authorize more telecommunications links with Cuba was a "potentially significant opening," particularly if the Cuban government follows through and allows those connections.
Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch welcomed the Cuba announcement but said more should be done.
"If President Obama is serious about promoting change in Cuba, this executive order must be part of a larger shift away from the U.S.'s unilateral approach toward the Cuban government," Vivanco said.
Taking the other side, three Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to Obama on Monday that his decisions would have "devastating consequences."
They said the Cuban government takes 30 cents of every dollar in U.S. remittances that enters the country as a usury fee.
"This income facilitates the regime's finance of its repressive state security apparatus," they wrote. The letter was signed by Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Albio Sires and Robert Andrews of New Jersey. They recommended a more calibrated approach: doubling the amount of allowable money transfers to family members in Cuba rather than allowing unlimited transfers.
American policy toward Cuba has been frozen since 1962, when the Kennedy administration broadened a partial trade embargo imposed by the Eisenhower administration the previous year. The original aim was to bring down Fidel Castro's Marxist government at a time when U.S.-backed exiles mounted the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and Soviet missiles in Cuba pushed the world close to nuclear war.
Sporadic congressional efforts to end the embargo since then have failed, largely due to the political influence of powerful Cuban exiles, mostly in Florida, who are determined to isolate Cuba, strangle its economy and force Castro out.
Castro, now 82, ceded the presidency to his brother last year due to illness. Raul Castro, 77, shows no sign of making any fundamental changes.
The White House portrayed the lifting of travel restrictions and money transfers to family members in Cuba — coupled with the telecommunications changes — as steps to bridge the gap among divided Cuban families.
"All who embrace core democratic values long for a Cuba that respects the basic human, political and economic rights of all of its citizens," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in announcing the decision. "President Obama believes the measure he has taken today will help make that goal a reality."
It had been known for more than a week that the White House would announce the Cuba changes in advance of Obama's attendance this weekend at a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Cuba is excluded from that gathering of 34 heads of government, but a number of participants are expected to use the session as an opportunity to press the U.S. to improve relations with Havana.
There has been a growing chorus of congressional advocates for change in U.S. policy toward Cuba. In February, Sen. Lugar, R-Ind., issued a report based on a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff visit to Havana that called for a repeal of the family travel and money transfer restrictions.
Lugar's report also urged congressional action to remove all U.S. travel restrictions, not just those for Cuban-Americans. Further, it advocated lifting travel restrictions on Cuban diplomats in Washington, who are not allowed to journey outside the capital area. It said this would encourage a reciprocal lifting of Cuban restrictions on U.S. diplomats, improving the U.S. government's ability to understand more fully the conditions that exist on the entire island.
Separately on Monday, a U.S. religious freedom watchdog group said it had been forced to call off a fact-finding trip after the Cuban government did not issue visas to its delegation. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the visas had been applied for weeks earlier and it had received no explanation for why they were not granted.