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Cuba and the US : New Thaw or “Wrong Signal”?

Cuba and the US : New Thaw or “Wrong Signal”?

The United States on Monday announced it was revisiting some of its Cuba policy, including easing some of the tough restrictions imposed during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Among the changes are the removal of restrictions on money transfers to family members who remain in Cuba and the removal of a number of barriers to travel to the island. The processing of US visa applications for Cubans will also be accelerated.

“The Cuban people are facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and our policy will remain focused on empowering the Cuban people to help them create a future free of repression and economic hardship,” the State Department said in a statement.

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The new measures mark the most significant change in U.S. attitude towards Havana since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.

This, however, does not mean that US-Cuban relations are going back to the days of Barack Obama, under which Biden served as vice president.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the new measures are aimed at “further supporting the Cuban people, providing them with additional tools to live free from the oppression of the Cuban government, and seek greater economic opportunities.”

The US will lift the $1,000 per quarter limit on money transfers to family members staying in Cuba today and will allow money transfers to non-family members.

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At the same time, the United States will not remove organizations from the list of Cuban government and military companies with which US firms and citizens are prohibited from doing business.

“We intend to ensure a freer flow of remittances to the Cuban people without enriching those who violate human rights,” an administration official said.

The United States will use electronic payment systems for money transfers so that the funds do not go directly to the Cuban government, the official said, adding that the US has already started discussions with the Cuban government to set up mechanisms to do so.

Not everyone is satisfied

The Biden administration is well aware that the removal of some restrictions could lead to a weakening of political support from conservative Cuban-Americans, who largely approved of the hard-line policy of the former President Donald Trump towards Cuba.

Senator Bob Menendez, Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “Today’s announcement could send the wrong signal to the wrong people, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons.”

“Those who still believe that increased travel will lead to democracy in Cuba are simply denying the obvious. For decades the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed,” he said.

Cuba and the US : New Thaw or "Wrong Signal"?
Cuba and the US : New Thaw or “Wrong Signal”?

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has Cuban roots, also criticized the new measures, tweeting that the Cuban regime “threatens Biden with mass migration and has sympathizers within the administration.”

“As a result, today we are seeing the first steps back toward Obama’s failed Cuba policy,” he said, referring to the warming relationship between Washington and Havana, including Barack Obama’s 2016 visit to the island.

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Since taking office, President Trump has tightened visa rules, restricted money transfers, reduced flights to the island, and increased barriers to U.S. citizens visiting Cuba for reasons other than family reasons.

Details on how the new policy will be implemented are still scarce, but officials have said the first steps will be taken in the coming weeks.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez tweeted that the US announcement was a modest step in the right direction.

“This decision does not change the embargo, the fraudulent listing (of Cuba) as a state sponsor of terrorism, nor most of Trump’s enforcement of maximum pressure measures that still affect the Cuban people,” he wrote.

Family reunion

Planned measures include the restoration of the family reunification program, which provides Cubans with a legal way to reunite with relatives living in the United States, and increased consular capacity.

Washington plans to issue 20,000 immigrant visas a year, officials say. The Biden administration is preparing to expand the embassy’s staff, but it’s unclear how and when that might happen.

This month, the US Embassy in Havana began issuing immigrant visas to Cubans, fulfilling its promise to resume issuing visas after a four-year hiatus.

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The Biden administration will also expand the list of reasons to travel to Cuba and allow scheduled and charter flights to use airports other than Havana, the State Department said.

Washington will allow certain categories of group educational travel, as well as certain professional and academic travel.

However, individual travel will still remain prohibited. They were put to rest under President Trump under the pretext that they were being abused by Americans going to Cuba on holiday.

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The United States will increase support for independent Cuban entrepreneurs, seeking, among other things, to facilitate access to the Internet, microfinance and training.

Biden promised during the 2020 elections to resume engagement with Cuba. But crackdowns in Havana after massive protests on the island last July led instead to sanctions against Cuban officials.

The Cuban government accused the US of interfering in the protests.

Officials said no decision had yet been made on whether to invite Cuba to the Americas summit in June. Mexico and other countries have threatened to withdraw from the summit unless all of the Americas are invited.