Activists Assess New Cuba Policy

Some who work with the U.S. Cuban community enthusiastically welcomed the Obama administrations announcement that restrictions will be lifted on Cuban-Americans travel, gifts of money and other kinds of aid to their homeland. But they agreed that how the Cuban government responds is the key to whether the gesture will help bring the changes that a 47-year-old embargo against the communist country has not accomplished. "This is a step in the right direction," said Father Jose Espino, a priest of the Miami Archdiocese and a Cuban native.    

The White House announced April 13 that Cuban-Americans would no longer be restricted to one two-week visit every three years. President Obamas executive order did not affect the overall trade embargo on Cuba, nor will it allow more general travel to the island nation by non-Cuban-Americans.    


The order also expanded the definition of family to allow visits to distant relatives. Thats particularly important, said Father Espino, because Cubans have a broad definition of family that encompasses more than immediate relatives. For instance, Espino said, his father has two elderly cousins in Cuba, with nobody to support them. The changed definition of family would allow distant relatives from the United States to help tend to the cousins.   

The order also lifted limits on the amount and frequency of money Cuban-Americans can send to family and will allow banks to forward funds to Cuba. It also broadened the scope of humanitarian donations that may be sent and it authorized the creation of new licenses permitting U.S. telecommunications companies to provide telephone, satellite radio and television service and equipment in Cuba.   

Father Espino helps Catholic Relief Services coordinate some activities with its Cuban counterparts. He told Catholic News Service April 14 that, as seen last year after Cuba was hit by four hurricanes, "family-to-family help is always the best and easiest way" to provide aid. But, he cautioned, "its a two-way street." The Cuban government could still withhold visas from U.S. citizens trying to visit their relatives. Cuba also requires any native who left the country after 1970 to use a Cuban passport on a return visit. Such passports can take months or years to obtain.   

Some critics said that the entire trade embargo should have been lifted or that the relaxed rules on money to Cuba will put more dollars in the hands of the communist government. At a White House news briefing, Dan Restrepo, special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, said that although some funds will find their way to the government "we think the positive benefits here will way outweigh any negative effects,” adding that the president "is very clear that were getting the United States out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families. The Cuban government should get out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families. It should stop charging the usurious fees that it does on these remittances."   

Lynn Renner, regional representative for the Caribbean for CRS, the U.S. bishops overseas relief and development agency, said the eased restrictions "are in keeping with what the U.S. bishops have been asking for years." Renner said the changes will make it easier for people to help their relatives, easing the everyday needs of a largely impoverished country.   

In an April 15 letter to Restrepo, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace, said that, "despite the fact that the current trade embargo and travel restrictions largely remain, the presidents decision to relax restrictions on Cuban-American travel and the regulation in remittances to Cuba is long overdue. This action represents an important change to U.S. policy toward Cuba." Bishop Hubbard said the restrictions and embargo "have largely failed to promote greater freedom, democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba" and "unnecessarily alienated many in the hemisphere." More contact, rather than less, between Cubans and the United States will best improve the lives of Cubans and advance the cause of improved human rights, he said. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long argued that the principal effect of the U.S. embargo against Cuba has been to strengthen the governments control. The Cuban Catholic bishops oppose the embargo and the USCCB supports its eventual end.

It is illegal for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba without a license issued by the Treasury Department for a limited number of specific purposes. Legislation introduced this term by sponsors from both parties in Congress would open travel to all U.S. citizens. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the bills sponsors, said in a statement that it "never made sense" for the U.S. government to tell its citizens they cant travel to Cuba. Flake said Obamas memorandum is "the first step in lifting travel restrictions for all Americans. The administration has done what it can; congressional action is needed to take the next step."

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