WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration announced Monday that it will expand flights to Cuba, take steps to ease restrictions on U.S. travelers to the island and lift Trump-era restrictions on remittances, that immigrants can send to people on the island.
The State Department said in a statement that it would remove the current limit of $1,000 per quarter on remittances to families and allow remittances to non-families, which will support Cuban independent entrepreneurs. The U.S. will also allow scheduled and charter flights to locations outside of Havana, according to the State Department.
The government said it will also reinstate Cuba’s probationary family reunification program, which has a backlog of more than 20,000 applications, and improve consular services and visa processing.
“Through these actions, we want to support Cubans’ quest for freedom and greater economic opportunity so they can lead prosperous lives at home,” added State Department spokesman Ned Price. “We continue to call on the Cuban government to immediately release political prisoners, to respect the fundamental freedoms of the Cuban people and to allow the Cuban people to determine their own future.”
The policy changes come after a review that began shortly after a series of widespread protests on the island last July.
Former President Donald Trump had tightened sanctions against Cuba, including lifting licenses to send remittances and punishing oil tankers calling at the island.
These measures and the pandemic contributed to an economic crisis in Cuba, where people are suffering from shortages of basic necessities, power outages and rationing.
The economic situation brought thousands of people to the streets of Cuba on July 11, 2021 in the largest protests of its kind on the island in decades. Many people were frustrated with the shortage and low wages and with the socialist government. NGOs have reported more than 1,400 arrests and 500 convictions of up to 20 years in prison for vandalism or incitement to hatred.
In recent weeks, both the US and Cuban governments have opened some talks amid a wave of Cubans attempting to immigrate to the US illegally
In the first week of April, the US Embassy in Havana resumed processing visas for Cubans, albeit on a limited basis, more than four years after consular services on the island were suspended amid a tightening of ties.
Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the moves sent “the wrong message” to the administration of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Menendez particularly criticized the government’s decision to resume travel by groups for educational and cultural exchanges and some travel for professional meetings and professional research on the island.
“I am dismayed to learn that the Biden administration will begin approving group travel to Cuba through tourism-like visits,” Menendez said. “To be clear, those who still believe that increased travel will bring about democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”
White House officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, noted that the Treasury Department has the power to audit groups organizing travel and will ensure the travel is fit for purpose and in accordance with US law.
An official defending the move noted that the president underscored his belief that “Americans are the best ambassadors of democratic values.”
As a presidential candidate, Biden said he would return to Obama-era policies that eased decades of embargo restrictions on Havana. Meanwhile, Republicans accused him of not giving enough support to Cuban dissidents.
President Barack Obama’s rapprochement was reversed by Trump, who severely restricted remittances Cuban Americans were allowed to send to relatives on the island, banned financial and commercial transactions with most Cuban companies linked to the government or military, and in his final days in office, Cuba once again declared a “state sponsor of terrorism,” in part because of its support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said he will withhold any relevant Biden nominees who need Senate confirmation until the decision is reversed.
“Biden can phrase this however he wants, but this is the truth: This is nothing but an idiotic attempt to return to Obama’s failed appeasement policy and a clear show of support for the evil regime,” Scott said.
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