U.S. weighs easing of Cuba travel restrictions

Embargo would remain intact but American students, educators and researchers could visit more readily

Published August 17, 2010 9:10PM (EDT)

The Obama administration, in a test of the Castro regime's appetite for further reform in the wake of its release of political prisoners, is considering easing travel restrictions to Cuba, U.S. and congressional officials said Tuesday.

The move would leave intact the nearly 50-year-old embargo against the communist regime but would expand opportunities for American students, educators and researchers to visit Cuba, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because internal deliberations continue on the scope and scale of the changes.

A decision could be announced before the end of next week. However, the officials cautioned that political considerations could hold up a decision, possibly until after November's midterm congressional elections.

Some in Congress have voiced opposition to a further easing in the restrictions, which President Barack Obama loosened last year to allow Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to relatives on the island. The new changes would extend some of those provisions to a broader group of Americans and could expand direct flights to Cuba, the officials said.

Details of the possible revisions were first reported Tuesday by The New York Times. But speculation about them has run rife in Washington since late July after Havana released the first batch of political prisoners.

Obama has said that he wants to reach out to Cuba and promote democracy there by easing travel and financial restrictions. But he has also said there must be political or economic reforms before the U.S. takes further steps to ease Cuba's isolation.

The White House and State Department declined to comment Tuesday on specifics of the changes.

"We will continue to pursue policies that advance the U.S. national interest and support the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their country's future," said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House. Those comments were echoed word-for-word by a State Department spokesman.

Speaking privately, two administration officials and a congressional source said support for the changes increased after Cuba began the release of political prisoners in July, which was brokered by the Catholic church.

Some supporters of easing the embargo say Raul Castro, who assumed power from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, may be trying to find a way to reduce state control of society without losing control, much like the Chinese communist party in the 1980s.

But the Obama administration could find it difficult politically to broaden ties with Cuba. The White House is still appealing to Cuba for the release of a U.S. government contractor who was detained last year.

Any effort to ease the embargo against Cuba would be fiercely opposed by Republicans and Democrats, both on Capitol Hill and across the U.S., who warn that it would weaken attempts to promote a fundamental change in Havana.

A growing number of lawmakers in both parties see Cuba as a lucrative market for U.S. farm exports, and support dropping at least some restrictions on trade.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has said that loosening restrictions would reward a repressive government that has shown little interest in reform.

"Promoting travel and widespread remittances will give the regime a much-needed infusion of dollars that will only allow the Castro brothers to extend their reign of oppression and human rights violations," Menendez said in an Aug. 6 statement.

Mendendez' comments came in response to a mention of possible changes published in a Washington Post column.

By Matthew Lee

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