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Obama lifts restrictions on remittances and visits to Cuba

Article published on the 2009-04-14 Latest update 2009-07-24 14:17 TU

Fidel Castro (R) with his brother Raúl (L).(Photo: José Goitia)

Fidel Castro (R) with his brother Raúl (L).
(Photo: José Goitia)

US President Barack Obama attempted to thaw relations between his country and Cuba on Monday when he lifted all curbs on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to the island. The move is making good on one of his campaign promises to improve relations with the communist island, which has been under a US economic embargo for 47 years.

Washington says the move is to encourage democracy and political rights in Cuba. In March, Obama signed a budget into law easing travel restrictions to the island.

"President Obama has directed that a series of steps be taken to reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic human rights and to freely determine their country's future," said White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs on Monday.

"The president has directed the secretaries of state, treasury and commerce to carry out the actions necessarty to lift all restrictions on the ability of indivduals to visit family members in Cuba and to send them remittances."

The move is also the subject of the White House blog, which promises to "reach out" to the island.

But Havana was critical, saying that Obama's gesture did not go far enough.

"Not a word was said about the embargo, which is most cruel of all actions," said Cuba's former-leader Fidel Castro, who handed over power to his brother Raul in 2008, in an article on the Cubadebate website. The former leader said Cuba was not looking for "charity" but an end to the embargo.

Obama's move is essentially a reversal of Bush policy, Cuba specialist Helen Yaffe told RFI.

Analysis: Helen Yaffee, Cuba specialist

14/04/2009 by Amanda Morrow

"The first thing to point out is that all he [Obama] has done is lift travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans only, not for US citizens per se," she says. "The other thing is that the law restricting Cuban-Americans was introduced in May 2004, so previous to that there were no restrictions."

Gibbs said the prospect of improving relations between the US and Cuba "in many ways depends on the actions of the Cuban government".

The White House called on Havana to reduce charges it levies on money transfers to family members.

The topic has been a sensitive issue for the estimated one-and-a-half million US residents with relatives in Cuba.

Obama's plan also allows for US telecommunications companies a foot in the door towards the yet untapped Cuban market. US wireless telephone providers would be allowed to enter roaming service agreements with Cuban firms, and US satellite broadcasts would also be allowed.

US farm states may also see Cuba as a potential market.

"We should also immediately eliminate the roadblocks that the Bush administration put in place to make it harder for farmers to sell food to Cuba," said US Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota).

The embargo has been estimated to have cost Cuba about 80 billion dollars (60 billion euros) over the past 50 years, says Yaffee.

"It has been an attempt to strangle the Cuban economy [...] but to an extent it has failed because Cuba today has broken out of its isolation," she says.

"It has diversified its trading partners, it has re-entered the bosom of Latin America, and it has re-joined the Rio Group. So in a sense, Obama is racing to catch up."