|Al Jazeera, April 14, 2009|
|By Rob Reynolds, senior Washington correspondent|
The US easing of travel restrictions to Cuba is a small step – but considering that US-Cuban relations have been frozen in hostility for decades, any step is significant.
The new policy allows Cuban-Americans unlimited visits to family members on the island and permits them to send money and gifts such as clothing and personal items.
It also gives US telecommunications companies permission to apply for Cuban government permits.
Until now, Cuban-Americas have been restricted to one visit every three years and an annual limit of $300 in remittances.”It sends a signal that the US is ready to engage diplomatically, where there has been virtually no engagement with Cuba for 50 years,” says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a Latin American policy specialist at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies in Washington.
When Barack Obama began his campaign for the White House he promised to take the steps outlined on Monday.
The White House says Obama’s aim is to “help bridge the gap among divided Cuban families and promote the freer flow of information and humanitarian items to the Cuban people”.
The “people-based” approach to improving ties with Cuba won praise from Vicki Huddleston, a former US envoy to Cuba.
“It’s a great thing to allow for human contact,” she says.
“I think you’ve seen all over the world that you get change through contact, not isolation.”
The new policy is likely to be broadly popular among the Cuban-American community where many felt harsh restrictions imposed by the administration of George Bush, Obama’s predecessor, nearly five years ago were hurting ordinary Cuban citizens.
There about 1.5 million Americans with relatives in Cuba.Many of those families provide vital financial assistance to relatives, benefiting the Cuban economy as a whole.
Legislation now before the US congress would lift all travel restrictions on all American citizens, not just Cuban-Americans.
A flood of curious, free-spending American tourists would have an enormous impact on Cuba’s economy and society.
After 47 years, the US economic embargo on Cuba has been condemned by some as one of the worst foreign policy failures in US history.
Fidel Castro, the former president, remained firmly in control during all those years, thumbing his nose at “Yanqui” power and 10 US presidents, until ill health forced him to transfer power to his brother, Raul, in February last year.
Almost every country in the world except the US has normal relations with Cuba.
A steady supply of oil and money from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has helped the Castro government survive and continue suppressing freedom of speech and political activity.
The constant state of siege brought on by the embargo gives the Castro brothers an important emotional prop and exposes the US to charges of bullying behaviour towards its smaller neighbour.
It could have died years ago had it not been for the political clout of the conservative Cuban-American exile community, concentrated in the key electoral state of Florida.
By well-organised public relations efforts and bloc voting, emphatically anti-communist, anti-Castro Cuban-Americans were able to dictate US foreign policy.
No president dared oppose them, for fear of losing Florida and the White House on election day.
But while many of the older generation of exiles and expatriates still harbour a fierce hatred for Castro, a younger generation has softer views.
A new poll shows a majority of Cuban Americans now oppose continuing the embargo.
And among all Americans, 71 per cent want a positive change in Cuban-American relations.Because of the embargo, the US has very little diplomatic or economic leverage on Cuba.
The Obama administration hopes its travel gesture will encourage Havana to allow more human rights and economic freedom.
Raul Castro’s government has taken some tentative steps towards liberalising its tight control over society, allowing Cubans to own mobile phones, computers and foreign currency.
Obama has repeatedly said he would consider holding talks with Cuban leaders.
But while the US president is more inclined to break the old standoff with Havana, he says he is not about to do away with the embargo until Cuba institutes more human rights and democratic reforms
Obama will attend a hemispheric summit meeting in Trinidad this week, where he is likely to be pressed by Latin American leaders to move more boldly towards normalising relations with Cuba.
He can at least offer this small but significant measure as evidence he is committed to change.