Obama Eases Limits On Cuba Travel, Remittances

President Obama ordered his administration to lift some restrictions on family travel and money transfers to Cuba and allow U.S. telecommunications companies to provide more cellular and satellite service, the White House said Monday.

The decision does not lift the decades-old trade embargo with Cuba, but it does fulfill an Obama campaign promise to ease restrictions that have prevented Cuban-Americans from visiting their relatives. As a candidate and as president, Obama has said that he believes greater openness with Cuba will hasten democratic change in the communist island nation.

"The president would like to see greater freedom for the Cuban people. There are actions that he can and has taken today to open up the flow of information to provide some important steps to help that," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

But Gibbs said that the Castro regime must do more. "There are some steps that the Cuban government can and must take," he said.

Under Obama's plan, Americans would be able to make unlimited trips to visit relatives in Cuba and provide unrestricted financial aid to family members there. The administration will also begin issuing licenses for companies to provide cellular telephone and television services to the island, and it will allow Cuban-Americans to pay for relatives on the island to get services, officials said.

Families in the U.S. will also be able to send more gifts to Cuba, such as clothing, personal hygiene items, seeds, fishing gear and other articles.

Contacts Restricted In Bush Administration

Such contacts were limited under tight restrictions put in place by the George W. Bush administration in its effort to isolate the regime in Havana.

Obama has said there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans.

"It's time to let [Cuban-Americans'] money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime," he said in a speech in Miami last year.

The policy change does not extend to Cuban government officials and Communist Party members. Sending money to them is still prohibited.

On hand for the announcement was Dan Restrepo, a special assistant to the president and a senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council.

Restrepo said the president's directive will support the desire of the Cuban people to determine their own future.

"It's very important to help open up space, so the Cuban people can work on the kind of grass-roots democracy that is necessary to move Cuba to a better future," he said.

Restrepo also said that air service between the U.S. and Havana may have to be expanded if demand for flights grows following the easing of travel restrictions.

Announcement Timed To Obama's Trip

The announcement comes as the president prepares to leave Thursday for the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. He also plans to visit Mexico during the trip.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has vowed to use the gathering as a platform to call for the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba to be lifted. Throughout much of Latin America, the 49-year-old embargo is viewed as a sign of U.S. heavy-handedness in the region.

The Obama administration is hoping Monday's announcement will enable the president to focus on a broader range of issues — from climate change to the global financial crisis — when he meets with leaders of countries in the Western Hemisphere.

From NPR and wire reports

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