August 7, 2010 in Nation/World

U.S. may ease travel to Cuba

Source says Obama plans several steps
Juan O. Tamayo McClatchy
 

MIAMI – The Obama administration will soon ease some restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba and other sanctions following Havana’s promise to free political prisoners, according to growing but unconfirmed reports.

Two persons close to the administration told El Nuevo Herald on Friday the decision has been made and will be announced in the next two weeks. Another said he’s heard the reports but cautioned they could be “trial balloons.”

The key change will be an expansion of educational and cultural travel, which accounted for about 2,000 visits in 2009, said two of the sources. Many academics have urged President Barack Obama to expand those visits, drastically trimmed by the George W. Bush administration.

One of them added that Obama also will restore the broader “people-to-people” category of travel, which allows “purposeful” visits to increase contacts between U.S. and Cuban citizens.

Though that category requires prior U.S. licenses for the trips, it is fuzzy enough to allow for much expanded travel to Cuba, the source added. All asked for anonymity because they did not want to be seen as pre-empting a White House announcement.

The people-to-people category was established by the Clinton administration but was closed in 2003 by Bush, both because of his more aggressive policies toward Cuba and complaints that too many people were abusing it for purely tourist trips.

An estimated 150,000-200,000 U.S. travelers visited the island in 2001. The figure dropped to 120,000 during Bush’s last year in office, but rebounded to 200,000 in 2009 after Obama lifted virtually all restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel to the island.

Another change will be permission for U.S.-Cuba flights from all of the about 35 U.S. airports that have top-level security arrangements, according to two of the sources. Cuba flights are now approved only for Miami, Los Angeles and John F. Kennedy airport in New York.

Obama also will make it easier to pay in the United States for telephone and other services rendered in Cuba, the sources added, in hopes of increasing communications between the island and Cuban exiles.

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