WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Monday announced a series of steps aimed at easing the U.S. relationship with Cuba, breaking from policies first imposed by the Kennedy administration and stepping into an emotional debate over the best way to bring democratic change to one of the last remaining communist regimes.
White House officials said the decision to lift travel and spending restrictions on Americans with family on the island will provide new support for the opponents of Raul and Fidel Castro’s government. And they said lifting the ban on U.S. telecommunications companies reaching out to the island will flood Cuba with information while providing new opportunities for businesses.
Obama left in place the broad trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962. But just days before leaving to attend a summit with the leaders of South and Central America, he reversed restrictions that barred U.S. citizens from visiting their Cuban relatives more than once every three years and lifted limits on the amount of money and goods Cuban Americans can send back to their families.
He also cleared away virtually all U.S. regulations that had stopped American companies from attempting to bring their high-tech services and information to the island.
“All who embrace core democratic values long for a Cuba that respects the basic human, political and economic rights of all of its citizens,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday in announcing the new Cuba policy. “President Obama believes the measure he has taken today will help make that goal a reality.”
Under the new rules, officials say, there is likely to be an explosion of new charter flights to the island, and direct commercial flights could follow. Gifts and money will flow freely from U.S. relatives for the first time. And the announcement could open the door for the American information revolution to enter the island nation – in the form of Howard Stern on Sirius radio, iPhones and Wikipedia.
The moves were hailed by many advocates of greater openness toward the regime, including the business community, which sees new opportunities for commerce. But they were immediately criticized by those on the right and the left who said they either went too far or not far enough.
Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, brothers and Florida Republicans who are from Cuba, issued a joint statement calling the move a “serious mistake” that represents a concession to a repressive regime. They said the money flowing into Cuba would reach communist leaders, not the people.
“President Obama has violated his pledge of January 20 by unilaterally granting a concession to the dictatorship which will provide it with hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” their statement said. “Unilateral concessions to the dictatorship embolden it to further isolate, imprison and brutalize pro-democracy activists.”
On the other side of the issue, Carlos Pascual, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, praised the policy shift as a good first step that recognizes what he called 50 years of failed policy toward Cuba.
But Pascual, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States at age 3, said democratic change in the country will not come until the U.S. trade embargo is lifted.
Most nations now have diplomatic relations with Cuba, leaving the United States virtually alone in its attempts to enforce the embargo.
“It isn’t enough,” said Pascual, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
“In and of itself, it’s not going to produce a radical change in Cuba. But it’s a recognition that a change is necessary.”
White House officials cast the policy shift as the beginning of a change in direction that Obama signaled when he was a candidate. During the campaign, Obama promised to ease travel restrictions and said he was open to dialogue with the Castro regime without “preconditions.”
Gibbs said the ball is now in Cuba’s court.
“The president has made clear that he is willing to talk to our adversaries,” Gibbs said, adding: “I do think there are steps that we would – that the Cuban government can and must take.”
There are some indications the Cuban leaders are ready to do that. Last week, a delegation from the Congressional Black Caucus visited Cuba and met face to face with Fidel Castro, spending 1 1/2 hours with him at his home.
According to Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., one of the three delegation members, Castro told them Cuba is open to talks with the Obama administration “without preconditions.” In an online column before the meeting, Castro wrote that “we are not afraid of dialogue with the United States,” adding: “That is the only way to achieve friendship and peace between peoples.”
The Obama administration had telegraphed for weeks that the travel and money restrictions would be lifted. But the new rules for telecommunications firms were a surprise and sent stock prices of several companies higher in trading Monday.
The changes do not alter the Cuban government’s long-standing efforts to hinder foreign companies operating on the island. But U.S. firms will no longer face American restrictions against building underwater fiber pipes or beaming satellite signals to Cuba.
Satellite radio and television operators can now try to bring their content to residents there. And cell phone operators will be able to pursue partnerships with Cuba’s local network operators for roaming contracts so U.S. customers can use their phones while on the island.
The changes will challenge the nation’s monopoly telecommunications service provider from Venezuela, analysts said.
“Once you begin getting the system in and begin moving bits there, lots of things become possible that weren’t before,” said Steven Clemons, director of the foreign policy program at the New America Foundation.
Industry giants AT&T and Verizon, along with the major telecom and wireless trade groups, declined to comment, saying they were waiting for more details on how firms will be able to offer their services to the nation.
But analysts say the potential business to supply Cuba’s estimated 12 million residents with cell phone, Internet, and satellite television and radio service could be a boon for U.S. telecoms.
A report by Research and Markets, which follows telecommunications trends in Latin America, said Cuba has the lowest rate of cell phone and Internet use in Latin America. Cuba began to offer cell phone service last April, under President Raul Castro, who was handed power by his brother Fidel.