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Obama eases U.S. travel rules to Cuba; huge boost in American visitors likely
CubaNews / February 2011

By Larry Luxner

The announcement came late Friday afternoon, Jan. 14 — less than 48 hours after U.S. and Cuban officials met for migration talks in Havana: President Barack Obama had decided to enact the most encouraging changes in years for Americans eager to visit Cuba.

While the new rules don’t even come close to abolishing the travel ban — only Congress can do that — they’re already making thousands of Cuba-watchers happy, as evidenced by the avalanche of congratulatory emails pouring into CubaNews from trade associations, farm lobbies, religious groups, NGOs and at least one Miami Cuban exile organization.

Much more will be known once the new rules are published in the Federal Register by Jan. 30. For now, according to the White House, they:

*Expand “purposeful travel” by offering general Treasury Department licenses for academic, religious and cultural trips to Cuba.

*Provide specific licenses for “people-to-people” travel similar to the licenses provided from 1999 to 2003 by the Clinton administration.

*Allow for non-family remittances of up to $500 per quarter for private entrepreneurial and cultural activities, provided those remittances don’t go to “senior members” of the Cuban government or the Cuban Communist Party.

*Expand bilateral air links, allowing all U.S. international airports to operate charter flights to Cuba besides the three already authorized to do so: Miami, New York JFK and Los Angeles.

“Tonight, I’m going to party like it’s 1999, because we’re basically back to 1999,” Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the New York-based Americas Society, told CubaNews shortly after the regs were unveiled.

“There are tweaks here and there, but this policy basically brings us back to where we were under Bill Clinton, with few exceptions. That’s pretty much it.”

Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, was more dramatic, calling it “the most significant relaxation of the travel ban in the last two decades.”

Added the Latin America Working Group, which has lobbied for years for an end to the embargo: “We congratulate the White House on this forward-looking decision and look forward to a surge in travel to Cuba, and a move to encourage Congress to finish the job and actually change the law.”

While that’s not likely to happen for some time — especially now that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee — it seems obvious that the number of Americans who can now find a legal way of getting to Cuba will skyrocket.

“With these changes, I think we’re going to see upwards of one million people traveling to Cuba by 2012,” said Sabatini, citing pent-up demand by Americans eager to see Cuba for themselves — not to mention the 200,000 or so Cuban-American exiles already traveling to the island this year under existing law.

“You’re going to get environmental groups, cultural groups, and National Geographic expeditions. Universities will restart programs they had shut down. It may take a year to do, but we’ll be looking at close to 800,000 people-to-people travelers annually going to Cuba.”

On the surface, colleges and universities will be able to resume short-term survey programs for their own students as well as others as long as academic credit toward a degree is given. That was the case before the law was altered by President George W. Bush in 2004.

In addition, churches, synagogues and other religious groups will now be able to sponsor Cuba trips for religious purposes — as often and for as long as they desire.

But all other educational exchanges would require a specific license from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. That includes high schools, museums, college alumni, Elderhostels, chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs, foundations, artists, doctors, NGOs and third-party student exchanges.

Stuart Eizenstat, deputy treasury secretary in the Clinton White House, told CubaNews “they’re trying to do the most they can with the existing law, and I applaud it ... it’s a strong move in line with the kinds of things we were trying to do in the Clinton administration.”

During a conference call Friday arranged by the White House, a senior administration official said the new regulations had not been discussed with the Cuban government.

The official also told reporters that the main difference between Obama’s people-to-people policy and Clinton’s people-to-people policy is that the new one focuses on increasing academic and religious travel to Cuba.

Under Clinton, rules were also liberalized for other groups of people, leading to charges of abuse and accusations that Clinton was promoting outright tourism to Cuba.

Predictably, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) — a staunch embargo defender — said he was “deeply disappointed by President Obama’s decision to extend an economic lifeline” to the Castro brothers, warning that it would “provide the regime with the additional resources it needs to sustain its failing economy.”

We couldn’t get an immediate reaction from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, though a government website did say that “with these measures, the blockade is left intact and Washington’s policy is not substantially changed. However, these measures to ease the blockade reflect the consensus of the majority of the U.S people’s demand for a change of policy toward the island.”

Surprisingly, Miami’s top Cuban exile organization seemed to agree — sort of.

“These measures promote the interests of the people of the United States as well as the interests of the people of Cuba,” said Francisco “Pepe” Hernández, president of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, which helped craft Obama’s new policy.

“A greater ability to send remittances in conjunction with increased contact and communication with those on the island will help to break the chains of dependency that the Castro regime has traditionally used to oppress those inside Cuba,” he said.

One immediate effect of the new rule will be an expansion of direct charter flights to Cuba from gateway cities other than the three airports now approved to handle such flights: Miami, New York JFK and Los Angeles.

Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and San Juan are likely to be among the first to offer direct service to Havana.

“This is great news from an international air service development standpoint,” Joe Lopano, CEO of Tampa International Airport, told the Tampa Bay Business Journal. “We will begin meeting with air charter companies and working with federal authorities to make sure we meet all requirements for these Cuba flights.”

Gulfstream International, which offers Caribbean charter flights from TIA, runs Cuba charters from Miami and has recently boosted the frequency of those flights to handle increased passenger and cargo demand among Cuban exiles returning to their native island to visit family and friends.

Yet Sabatini cautioned that the new policy could also have some downsides, particularly when it comes to travelers’ safety.

“You will have 800,000 Americans running around Cuba, but with no access to ATMs or U.S.-issued health insurance. People will be carrying wads of cash in Cuba because they can’t use their credit cards,” Sabatini warned. “And students won’t be able to use their cellphones because there are no roaming agreements [with U.S. carriers].”

Meanwhile, Sabatini said he wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who’s been imprisoned by the Cubans for 13 months on suspicion of spying, is freed in the next few weeks.

“I would venture a guess that Alan Gross will probably not be in a Cuban jail any longer than the end of this month [January] — and probably will be out sooner than that,” he said, noting the timing of U.S.-Cuban migration talks in Havana at which Gross’s imprisonment and deteriorating health was brought up repeatedly. “The White House couldn’t have made these announcements without a Cuban promise to release him.”

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