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President Obama has ordered a significant change in the U.S. policy toward Cuba. He's lifted all restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to that island nation. Here's White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I think maybe the best way to sum this up is the way the president summed this up last year - to say that there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Greg Allen spent time yesterday talking to Cuban-Americans in Miami and has this report.
GREG ALLEN: ABC Charters is one of several companies in Little Havana that book flights to Cuba. Yesterday, Beatriz Mulet was there buying a ticket to go home to see her mother.
(Soundbite of aircraft)
Ms. BEATRIZ MULET: She is sick. She has just recently found out she's got breast cancer. She underwent surgery and right now she's going, you know, through chemo. So, you know, I definitely have to go see her and show my support.
ALLEN: Mulet was surprised and delighted to hear about the new policy changes, which lifted all restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans.
Ms. MULLET: I voted for Obama, yes, and I thought that he was going to do it. I just didn't know - I didn't know it was going to be this fast.
ALLEN: Under the Bush administration rules, Cuban-Americans were only allowed to return to the island to visit close family members once every three years.
ALLEN: Maria Aral, who runs ABC Charters, says the rules kept many from going back to Cuba as much as they wished. The new rules also expand whom you can visit, permitting trips not just to see close family members, but also to see great aunts and second cousins. Aral says that's important.
Ms. MARIA ARAL (President, ABC Charters): For us Cubans, cousins are close as sisters and, you know, under President Bush, my cousin was no longer my family. I couldn't visit them. Now, you know, you opened just another door.
ALLEN: The changes outlined yesterday also allow U.S. companies to improve telephone and Internet service to the island nation, if they can reach agreements with the Cuban government. They don't change the U.S. trade embargo, in place now for nearly 50 years. They do, however, mark a significant shift in White House tone towards Cuba. White House officials refused to say what future changes might be in the offing regarding Cuba, only that U.S. policy to the island nation is quote, not frozen in time.
That's also the case with South Florida's Cuban-American population. Polls show a majority of Cuban-Americans support lifting the travel and remittance restrictions - restrictions many once supported. Travel agent Maria Aral notes that second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans help account for the changing attitudes. But just as important are new arrivals from Cuba.
Ms. ARAL: There's 30,000 legal immigrants a year, according to the immigration agreement between the United States and Cuba. Those people want to go visit their family. They didn't leave for the same reasons that the people left in early '60s. So I think that's the whole change you're seeing in the atmosphere in South Florida also.
ALLEN: Even so, there's still a significant number of Cuban-Americans who are leery of any policy that weakens 50 years of hard line opposition to the Castro regime. Republicans Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Cuban-American brothers who represent Miami in Congress, called Obama's policy changes a serious mistake.
Influential radio commentator Ninoska Perez Castellon said President Obama is extending a hand to Cuba while the Castro regime still has a clinched fist.
Ms. NINOSKA PEREZ CASTELLON (Spanish radio commentator): We feel it's wrong to give this concession to the Cuban regime at a time when they have not shown any willingness to change. Cubans have no freedoms, individual freedoms, their prisons are full, so why grant this free ride to the Cuban regime at this point?
ALLEN: A sign of the changes that are taking place in South Florida can be found at the Cuban-American National Foundation. A little more than a decade ago, it was the hardest of hard-line Cuban-American groups, dedicated to upholding the trade embargo and overthrowing the Castro regime at any cost. Over the last decade, though, the group has moderated its position and recently released a white paper outlining many of the policies now adopted by President Obama.
The group's president, Pepe Hernandez, is a veteran of the Bay of Pigs, and once was a strong supporter of the travel restrictions. But after 50 years, he says, it's time to try something new. At a news conference yesterday, he was asked whether unrestricted remittances and travel to Cuba wouldn't end up enriching the Castro regime.
Mr. PEPE HERNANDEZ (President, Cuban-American National Foundation): Well, it's going to help the regime and we agree with that, there's no doubt about that, but it's going to help the Cuban people even more.
ALLEN: The new rules only affect Cuban-Americans, but more changes in U.S. travel policy toward Cuba are possible. A bill currently being considered in Congress would lift the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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