Cubans Cheer Easing of U.S. Travel Restrictions

April 14, 2009 - 4:12 AM
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Cubans make their way through a street in Havana on Monday, April 13, 2009. President Barack Obama has ushered in a new era of U.S openness toward the island nation. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)

Havana (AP) - Word that President Barack Obama had loosened restrictions on family travel and remittances -- among other measures softening U.S. sanctions against the communist-run country -- elicited cheers and a few tears in Havana on Monday.
 
Under the Bush administration rules, Cuban-Americans were eligible to travel here only every three years and send up to $300 to relatives every three months. Monday's action eliminated those limits in the hope that less dependence on their government will lead Cubans to demand progress on political freedoms.
 
"The president would like to see greater freedom for the Cuban people. There are actions that he can and has taken today to open up the flow of information to provide some important steps to help that," said presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs.
 
Former Cuban president Fidel Castro responded Monday by calling on Obama to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
 
Writing in a column published on the Web site of Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, Castro said that in announcing the easing of restrictions "not a word was said about the blockade, which is the cruelest of measures."
 
"The conditions are in place for Obama to use his talent in a constructive policy that ends something that has failed for nearly half a century," Castro wrote.
 
Many Cubans are happy that relatives in America will now be able to come whenever they want, stay as long as they want and send as much cash home as they can. About 1.5 million Americans have relatives in Cuba, which turned to communist rule after Fidel Castro seized control in 1959.

A couple pushes an old car through a street in Havana on Monday, April 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)

But while analysts say the move could usher in a new era of openness between the two countries, few here think it will mean the end of the trade embargo, which has choked off nearly all U.S. trade with the island for 47 years and counting.
 
"I'm not hoping for much more from Obama," said 43-year-old office worker Layna Rodriguez. "I don't know that he can do much more since to him, the important thing is what the Americans in his country do."
 
Jose Pilar Ramos, a 20-something looking for work in the Old Havana tourist district, said his cousin in Miami does not have enough money to visit Cuba -- regardless of what U.S. law now allows.
 
"Obama can do what he wants, but the problem is here. People don't want to work for $4 a week, even if they get more money from family members over there," he said, nodding toward the waters of the Florida Straits, which lap at the Havana coastline.
 
Nearly all Cubans work for the government, earning an average of 414 pesos -- just $19.70 -- a month. Ramos said he lost his state job after trying to flee Cuba three times by small boat, most recently in February when he was picked up on the high seas by the U.S. Coast Guard and sent home.
 
As he spoke, a police officer approached, demanded his identification card and detained him for venturing outside of his neighborhood in East Havana. Police keep close watch on tourist areas, ensuring that foreigners and Cubans don't mix more than necessary. Nobody had bothered Ramos until he began speaking to a foreign journalist.
 
Other steps taken Monday by the White House include expanding items allowed in gift parcels sent to Cuba. The administration also will begin issuing licenses for companies to provide cellular and television services to Cubans, and letting family members pay for relatives on the island to get those services.
 
But for many, the moves are only a beginning. Alberto Sal, a 68-year-old retiree, said he had high hopes when Obama was elected but is still waiting for significant action.
 
For instance, the president said nothing Monday about bipartisan measures in both houses of Congress that would effectively allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.
 
"He should do more and lift travel restrictions for all Americans," Sal said. "Until he does that, I don't think he's doing much."