Obama opens crack in US embargo against Cuba

President Barack Obama opened a crack on Monday in a decades-old US embargo against communist Cuba, allowing American telecommunications firms to start providing service for Cubans and lifting restrictions on family ties to the island.

In a major shift from the Bush administration’s hard-line approach to Havana, Obama ended limits on family travel and money transfers to their homeland by Cubans in the United States.

The moves by the White House do not eliminate Washington’s trade embargo against Cuba, set up 47 years ago, but they do hold out the prospect for improving relations between the two longtime foes.

“The president 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,” said White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs. “These are actions he has taken to open up the flow of information.”

US officials said Obama hoped the new measures would encourage Cuba’s one-party state to implement democratic reforms long demanded by Washington as a condition for removing sanctions imposed after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

Shares of companies that stand to gain from a thaw in U.S. ties with Cuba soared on the news, led by Canadian mining and energy company Sherritt International, a major player in Cuba’s nickel and oil industry, whose stock rose 24,5%.

Miami-based cruise operator Royal Caribbean also saw its shares rise on hopes that the number two cruise ship operator and rival Carnival, could sail to Cuba, just 140km from the United States.

US telecommunications companies will now be allowed to set up fibre-optic cable and satellite links with Cuba, start roaming service agreements and permit US residents to pay for telecoms, satellite radio and television services provided to people in Cuba, the White House said.

Obama also directed his government to look at starting scheduled commercial flights to Cuba.
Air travel between the United States and Cuba is now limited to charter flights.

While they insistently call for an end to the US embargo Cuba’s leaders have in the past reacted with caution and suspicion to initiatives presented by Washington as seeking to “open up” Cuba’s communist political system.

Havana rejects arguments that it needs Western-style democracy and has resisted as “subversive” past US efforts to channel funds and communications equipment to dissidents and independent journalists on the island.

Praise and criticism
Supporters of easing US sanctions against Cuba applauded the family-related policy changes, which will affect an estimated 1,5-million Americans who have relatives in Cuba.

They voiced hope it would lead to even bolder steps by Obama to dismantle the trade embargo, which critics argue is an obsolete policy that has failed to foster change in Cuba.

But conservative critics of Obama’s strategy said it would increase cash flow to help prop up Cuba’s government.

Obama had promised in the presidential campaign to ease some restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, but insisted he would not end the trade embargo until Cuba showed progress toward democracy.

Obama’s gesture comes before he attends a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad later this week.

White House deputy national security advisor Denis McDonough said the issue of money transfers was critical to other countries in the region as well.

“One thing that we hope we can encourage all of our friends [at the summit] to do is to work with us to call on the Cuban government to reduce the cost associated with the remittances sent to Cuban families,” he told reporters.

Cuba is among the US foes Obama has said he would be willing to engage diplomatically, instead of shunning them as his predecessor George Bush did.

“I enthusiastically applaud this, it is ground breaking ... ... I sincerely hope that this is the beginning of even more relaxation,” said Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of the Miami-based Cuban American Commission for Family Rights.

Until now, Cubans living in the United States had been allowed to travel to the island once a year and could send only $1 200 per person in cash to family members in Cuba.

Obama faced some resistance in the US Congress, especially from opposition Republicans.

“President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship,” said Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, both US lawmakers for Florida, home to the largest Cuban exile community in the United States.

At Havana airport, for decades the scene of tearful departures and reunions for families separated by politics and exile, Cubans were overjoyed with Obama’s measures.

“This is the most beautiful thing that could happen,” said 60-year-old Pablo, saying goodbye to his daughter who was returning to Miami. “If Obama does this, all of us will be able to get together. The family is what matters.” - Reuters

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