President Barack Obama may ease travel restrictions on Cuba, allowing more Americans to visit the island on educational and cultural trips, said a U.S. official who declined to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak on the subject.
Obama first loosened travel rules on Cuba last year, making it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to relatives on the Caribbean island in a bid to help “promote the freer flow of information,” according to a White House statement. The official didn’t give additional details on what the changes would be.
Current rules allow Americans to travel to Cuba on educational and cultural trips if they are students or employees at qualifying universities and meet a set of additional requirements, such as doing research toward a graduate degree. All Cuba travel must be approved by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The broader travel ban is designed to isolate the Castro regime and keep hard currency out of the country
Asked if the administration is considering easing the travel rules, Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in an e-mail: “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.”
Wider Travel Ban
A move to allow increased educational travel may encourage lawmakers to repeal a wider ban forbidding American travel to Cuba if Obama signals his support for the measure, said Ted Piccone, a Latin American specialist at the Brookings Institution, a policy research organization in Washington. Co-sponsors of bills in both houses of Congress to end the 47-year ban have said legislation may pass this year.
“The Democrats need cover from the White House,” said Piccone. “If they can’t do it now they’re never going to do it.”
If Obama remains silent on whether he would welcome such legislation, lawmakers may not be willing to take the political risk to pass a bill repealing the travel ban, Piccone said.
Travel and trade restrictions on Cuba have been adjusted by nearly every U.S. administration since then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower established trade limits in 1960, following Fidel Castro’s revolution against the U.S.-backed Batista regime. Former President George W. Bush banned some educational exchanges not directly related to academic coursework in 2003, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
Fidel Castro, 83, handed formal power to his brother Raul, 79, in 2008.
The move to ease educational travel restrictions would help groups such as Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based organization that arranges trips for Americans to visit countries including Cuba.
Global Exchange took fewer than 400 people to Cuba last year, compared with the more than 2,000 a year it took before Bush tightened regulations in 2003, said Pam Montanaro, who runs the group’s Cuba programs. That’s because few Americans can meet the requirements enforced by the Treasury Department, she said.
“It’s extremely difficult to qualify,” Montanaro said. “We have a lot of people who call and they just don’t apply.”
Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said in a March 25 interview that 1 million U.S. tourists may visit the island annually if the ban on travel is ended.
The House Agriculture Committee approved a bill in June that would end the travel ban and simplify rules governing cash transactions with Cuba.
Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said in an interview today that a bill he is co-sponsoring with Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi to repeal the travel ban may move to the Senate floor by next month or after the November elections.
“We’re confident we can get it passed,” Dorgan said in a telephone interview today. “Restricting the right of Americans to travel to Cuba means you are punishing the American people for transgressions of the Cuban government. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Obama’s move to expand contact with Cuba at this level would be in keeping with his administration’s overall approach to foreign policy, even with countries with which the U.S. has poor relations, said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has emphasized the importance of “people to people” exchanges in meetings with leaders from Pakistan to Georgia, promoting study-abroad programs and taking business delegations to the Middle East.
“It’s a way of expanding opportunities for outreach and possible dialogue, even with those seen as hostile to the U.S.,” said DeShazo.
The U.S. exported $532 million worth of goods to Cuba last year, most of it wheat, corn, meat and other farm goods. That total could be higher if rules governing cash payments were made simpler, U.S. farm groups say.
Groups such as the United States Tour Operators Association and the National Foreign Trade Council, a Washington-based organization of companies and trade associations, have called for a repeal of the ban.
Dorgan and Enzi’s bill on the travel ban is S. 428.