WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday made the first U.S. overture toward Cuba in decades, lifting all travel and gift restrictions for Cuban Americans and sending charter tour companies scrambling for more and bigger jets to meet the expected demand.
The formal announcement _- expected for months as part of a presidential campaign promise — came at the apparently first-ever bilingual White House briefing, with spokesman Robert Gibbs saying Obama was "taking some concrete steps today to bring about some much-needed change that will benefit the people of Cuba, to increase the freedom that they have."
The policy change — which includes pushing for more cell phone and satellite service for Cubans on the island — reversed former President George W. Bush's efforts to tighten restrictions against Cuba but stopped far short of efforts in Congress to lift all travel restrictions to the island.
The move also reignites one of the most emotionally charged issues in Miami's Cuban exile community: Should exiles visit the island they fled, and in doing so, help prop up the communist government's economy with U.S. dollars?
White House officials said the changes are aimed at hastening change on the island, in part by helping Cubans become less dependant on the Cuban government.
"We think the positive benefits here will way outweigh any negative effects that they may have," said Dan Restrepo, a special assistant to the president who spoke in English and Spanish. "That creating independence, creating space for the Cuban people to operate freely from the regime is the kind of space they need to start the process toward a more democratic Cuba."
The changes would allow unlimited family visits and remittances, let U.S. companies seek contracts for communication services in Cuba and expand the types of humanitarian aid that can be sent. Last month, Congress resumed allowing Cuban Americans to visit family members once a year. Under Bush that was pushed back to once every three years.
Obama campaigned on a promise to improve relations with Cuba, and the policy changes have support among Cuban Americans who'd like to see family more often.
Farm state lawmakers and trade groups have urged Obama to go further and lift the trade ban entirely.
Supporters of a hard-line stance against the communist regime, though, criticized Obama for not seeking concessions from Havana. In a joint statement, Miami Republican Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart said Obama has made "a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship."
They said Obama should insist that Cuba release political prisoners, legalize political parties, labor unions and the press and schedule elections. But the White House said the changes are aimed at increasing communication — among Cubans on the island and here in the United States.
The telecommunication changes include allowing U.S. companies to seek to operate satellite radio and TV on the island — something Cuba would have to permit. They also would allow Americans to pay for cell phone bills in Cuba, which can be expensive.
The White House also called on the regime to end its practice of keeping a portion of every remittance.
"The president's very clear that we're getting the United States out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families," Restrepo said. "The Cuban government should get out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families."
The Cuban American National Foundation, a leading exile group that has sought more interaction in recent years, applauded the decision, saying the Bush administration's stance did little to improve the lives of Cubans."
"We believe that the announcement today of the changes will help the Cuban people to become protagonists of their (own) changes in Cuba," CANF President Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez said at a news conference in Miami's Little Havana.
The new policy also would expand the items that can be sent to Cuba, including clothing, personal hygiene items and fishing equipment. Still prohibited: sending items to senior government officials and Communist Party members.
The announcement is timed to coincide with the fifth Summit of the Americas, which opens this week in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Latin American leaders have pressed the administration to normalize relations with Cuba, and its outsider status is likely to be a topic of conversation.
Both Gibbs and Restrepo dismissed suggestions that the changes were made to curry favor with Latin America, noting that Obama had promised during a campaign stop in Miami to change U.S.-Cuba policy.
Cuba watchers say the regime is unlikely to make any grand gestures in response. Havana wants Washington to repeal entirely the trade embargo, which the administration has resisted.
For some, the changes may not have gone far enough. The move comes a week after the Congressional Black Caucus met with Fidel and Raul Castro and said they planned to ask Obama to start talking to the Cuban government.
Bills to lift the travel ban have been introduced in both chambers of Congress. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., who is traveling with Obama to Trinidad, said he planned push to lift all travel bans.
"It's time to initiate a complete overhaul of our relationship with Cuba," Farr said. "It will start with reform to family travel and remittances, but it can't end there. We must expand this new policy of diplomatic outreach to our own backyard and restore responsible relations with Cuba."
(Miami Herald staff writers Laura Figueroa, Luisa Yanez and Trenton Daniel contributed from Miami.)
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