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Obama Eases Some Travel, Policy Restrictions on Cuba

April 13, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Signaling a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy, President Obama announced plans Monday to lift some travel restrictions to Cuba for Cuban-Americans and to improve telecommunications with the island. A reporter details the decision.

GWEN IFILL: We begin our coverage of the Cuba story with this report narrated by NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Obama’s decision today to ease restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba by Cuban-Americans fulfilled a promise candidate Obama made last year.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and their fathers, their sisters and their brothers. It’s time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent on the Castro regime.

KWAME HOLMAN: Currently, Cuban-Americans are limited to one trip to the island per year and remittances up to $1,200. There are an estimated 1.5 million Americans with family members living in Cuba.

Administration officials rolled out the policy this afternoon at the White House. It also expands the list of items that can be sent in gift packages to the island, to include clothing, personal items, and other necessities.

Additionally, the U.S. government will allow telecommunications firms to seek licenses to provide mobile phone, radio, and television services to people on the island.

White House Special Adviser Dan Restrepo.

DAN RESTREPO, special adviser to the President: This is forms — the modern forms of telecommunication to increase the flow of information to the Cuban people so that, if anyone is standing in the way of the Cuban people getting information, it is the Cuban government and it is not some outside technical problem that can be pointed to.

KWAME HOLMAN: Cuban-Americans will be able to pay for relatives on the island to get those services.

The Obama administration did leave in place the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. Officials said they hope to use it as leverage to get the Castro regime to release political prisoners.

Restrepo suggested today more changes might be coming.

DAN RESTREPO: U.S. policy towards Cuba is not frozen in time. It’s not frozen in time today. These are the steps that the president believes make sense to advance the cause of freedom in Cuba.

Obviously, like all aspects of policy, you have to react to the world that you encounter. And so I don’t think we should think of — we shouldn’t think of things as being frozen in time.

KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. policy toward Cuba likely will be an issue of much discussion later this week, when President Obama travels to Trinidad for the Summit of the Americas.

Reversal of Bush policy

GWEN IFILL: For more on the shift in U.S.-Cuba policy, we turn to New York Times correspondent Damien Cave reporting from Miami.

Welcome back to the program, Damien.

DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: How significant is it what -- that the president did today?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, it's a pretty strong reversal from eight years of policy that the Bush administration had put in place. And some say it's the closest thing to engagement or to serious efforts of engagement since the Carter administration.

This is basically an effort to find several different ways to connect Cubans here in Florida and throughout the country to Cubans on the island, but also it's a bit of an olive branch that will test the Cuban government to see what kind of response they offer.

GWEN IFILL: So what is the difference between what the Bush administration advocated in terms of this kind of contact and what we're now seeing from the Obama administration?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, the Bush administration approach was basically get tougher. The idea was that any amount of money, any amount of travel that goes to Cuba basically benefits the regime more than it benefits the Cuban people.

This approach is essentially the opposite. It's that, yes, the Cuban government may benefit a bit from remittances and from travel, but that at the end of the day the Cuban people benefit more and that that's where the focus should be.

This is something that the Cuban American National Foundation is now talking about and that the White House has picked up, as well.

GWEN IFILL: Is the timing significant that it's happening now?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, it seems to be an olive branch to the entire region of Latin America before the OAS conference. You know, for a lot of people in the region, Cuba is a bit of a test case for relations with the entire region. It's a litmus test, as one expert told me today, for the level of respect that they can expect from the United States government.

GWEN IFILL: The OAS being the Organization for American States conference, which the president is heading to later this week in Trinidad.

Lifting travel restrictions

GWEN IFILL: So if you are a Cuban-American, what difference does the lifting of these rules make for you? And if you are a Cuban living in Cuba, what difference does it make?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, I think if you're a Cuban-American here, it means you can go to the island as much as you want and stay as long as you want. It allows for movement between across the Florida Straits in a way that we haven't seen in quite a long time.

In terms of money, allowing it to be unlimited opens the door not just to sending someone enough money to get food, but also the possibility of less reliance on government. Maybe new businesses could start. This is sort of the broad, biggest possibility.

But the question that comes next is, what will the Cuban government do? Will they allow this sort of thing? And that's where -- to answer your question in terms of how Cubans will be affected, part of it will depend on how the Cuban government reacts.

At this point, they heavily tax remittances. They take a large chunk of that. If they increase that tax, cutting off some of the money that would get to Cubans on the island, it will be interesting to see how this community here in Florida or elsewhere reacts to that and how the U.S. government reacts to that. Basically what we're talking about is a major change.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I'm curious about that, Damien, because if, indeed, this does -- the Cuban government does tend to tax heavily whatever comes in and, for instance, a section of this allows greater telecommunications business to be setup between the United States and Cuba, how is this not benefiting the Cuban government, bottom line?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, it's interesting. I was just at the Cuban American National Foundation in Little Havana. And they said, yes, we know it will benefit the Cuban government. We know that they will take a cut of this.

But their belief is that, if you can empower the Cuban people to be less reliant on the government, that at the end of the day that's more important, that while it may prop up the regime, the regime is dying.

And, in fact, some people in Little Havana who I talked to, old-timers even, said, "Listen, the regime is broken. And this will just speed things up."

Shift in public opinion

GWEN IFILL: So even people who have been staunchly against any relaxation in relations with Cuba in the past decades, they're now beginning to soften on that point?

DAMIEN CAVE: There's been a slow evolution of the community here. Part of it's demographic. There are younger Cubans who are new arrivals or the sons or grandsons of the old-timers, but there is also a sense of change even among those who have been very aggressive in their stance.

There's a sense that after eight years or after the last four years of the Bush administration, it didn't work like they thought it would. And so there are some disgruntled people who feel that maybe it's time to try something else.

Now, these are baby steps. It's not the end of the embargo. But the hope is that, if this starts to lead to some progress, maybe some other things will be on the table.

GWEN IFILL: Has the president during his campaign stops or any point last year ever said he favors lifting the embargo?

DAMIEN CAVE: No. I mean, at this point, as one Cuban-American told me, the embargo is religion. It's something that, no matter what the arguments are for or against it, it's something that is just kept in place and everyone sort of agrees will be kept in place.

And yet the logic of the embargo, which was that if you allow money to go into Cuba, it benefits the Castros, is being undermined by this new change in policy.

And so in some ways it's this sort of this vestigial organ of policy that no one wants to touch. And as some people here have said, it just doesn't matter as much as it used to.

So the logic is that you can work around the embargo and keep it in place for those to whom it still is religion and something that they just can't let go of.

Future of the embargo

GWEN IFILL: OK, so stopping short of the embargo, we just heard Dan Restrepo at the White House say we do want to be frozen in time. Our policy is not frozen in time. But short of lifting the embargo, why go this far and not farther?

DAMIEN CAVE: You know, that's something that is still kind of hard to figure out. And I think the logic here is that we need to -- that the idea is to start small and see what the response is from the Cuban government.

Even though the Cuban-American community, which is still politically very powerful, has changed, there are a lot of people here who feel that giving too much to Cuba without a response would be problematic. And so this in some ways is just a couple of steps to see what the response is.

The idea is that opening it up entirely, getting rid of the embargo would be too much and would be considered reckless, when we don't know what the impact would be.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, Damien, we have been hearing for some weeks now that some form of this was going to be coming. And, of course, the announcement or at least the leak about the announcement happened fairly early in the day today. Has there been any response so far from the Cuban government to this?

DAMIEN CAVE: You know, I haven't seen any response to this. I mean, there have been -- some American lawmakers were in Havana recently, and they came home saying that the Cuban government was more willing to have dialogue than in the past.

But, you know, this is still an unanswered question: What will the response be, not just in word, but in action?

GWEN IFILL: Damien Cave, Miami bureau chief of the New York Times, thanks a lot for joining us.

DAMIEN CAVE: Sure. You're welcome.