Biden to lift some Trump-era restrictions on Cuba

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The Biden administration is lifting several Trump-era restrictions on Cuba, including on certain aspects of travel to the island, caps on family remittances and the issuance of immigration visas.

A State Department statement described the measures as designed “to further support the Cuban people, providing them with additional tools to lead a life free from oppression from the Cuban government and to seek greater opportunities.” economic”.

The decision comes after a lengthy internal review, the implementation of which was delayed after the Cuban government cracked down on widespread street protests on the island last summer.

The administration has come under pressure to reduce the number of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border, where tens of thousands of Cubans have become the second group of people seeking unauthorized entry through Mexico. Last month, the administration and Cuba held direct migration talks for the first time in four years.

Under decades-old bilateral agreements, the United States has agreed to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas a year to Cubans in exchange for Cuba’s agreement to accept deportation flights from those who arrived illegally or were otherwise deemed inadmissible.

Those deals were put on hold in 2018 as part of the Trump administration’s cancellation of President Barack Obama’s Cuba overture that led to the restoration of diplomatic ties in 2015. Visas of all types were further restricted. by sanctions, and the United States Embassy and Consulate were reduced. to skeletal staffs in 2019.

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As part of the new measures, the administration will increase the capacity of the consulate and reinstate a parole program for family reunification.

The Trump-era cap that limited family remittances to $1,000 every three months must be lifted. The ban on non-family remittances will be relaxed to allow payment to independent Cuban entrepreneurs, and the Treasury Department has issued at least one license to allow direct equity investment in a private Cuban company.

“We will encourage business opportunities outside the public sector by enabling access to extended cloud technology, application programming interfaces and e-commerce platforms,” ​​the statement said. A senior administration official said they are still exploring ways to allow direct money transfer under the new policies, after bank transfers have largely come to a halt in recent years.

A ban limiting US commercial and charter flights to Havana is also to be lifted, allowing flights to other Cuban cities. Tourism by U.S. citizens remains prohibited, as is individual travel in most circumstances, but the Treasury will now issue licenses for group educational travel.

Cuba is facing a serious economic crisis, caused by a combination of the pandemic and a sharp drop in tourism and global inflation, as well as the continued US sanctions under the age-old US trade embargo. decades, which can only be lifted by Congress.

Senior US officials who briefed reporters on the new policy said President Biden had asked them to offer options that would both “promote accountability for human rights abuses,” including direct sanctions against government and military officials, and “would explore meaningful ways to support the Cuban people.

“Fundamentally, these policies are ones that are designed to advance our own national interests” rather than build a new relationship with Cuba’s communist government, an official said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with rules imposed by the White House.

Despite pledging during his presidential campaign to reverse Trump’s restrictive measures, Biden has been caught between conflicting pressures on Cuba. Senior lawmakers, including a number of Cuban Americans, who opposed the easing of one of the restrictions, were quick to criticize the new moves.

“Today’s announcement risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time, and for all the wrong reasons,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (DN.J.), chairman of the Senate Committee on foreign relations. He said he was “appalled” to learn that “tourism-like” travel would now be permitted. “To be clear, those who still believe that increased travel will spawn democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the committee’s ranking Republican, was equally dismissive. “The regime in #Cuba has threatened Biden with mass migration and has sympathizers within the administration and the result is that today we see the first steps backwards towards Obama’s failed policies on Cuba “, he said on Twitter.

A number of Democrats, however, criticized Biden’s failure to deliver the changes promised by the campaign. Saying he was “encouraged by steps in the right direction,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) tweeted that “reversing Trump’s failed strategy and undoing decades of outdated Cold War policies will take time.” I applaud this move towards a smarter strategy of engagement and diplomacy.

In a statement released late Monday, Cuba’s foreign ministry called the changes “positive, but very limited in scope.”

“These announcements in no way alter the blockade,” as Cuba refers to the embargo, “nor major economic siege measures adopted by Trump, such as the lists of Cuban entities subject to additional coercive measures; nor do they eliminate travel restrictions for US citizens,” the department said.

The ministry attributed the new policy at least in part to “a request from the community of Latin American and Caribbean states, and virtually all members of the United Nations,” which for decades have been overwhelmingly denouncing each year. the embargo in a vote of the United Nations General Assembly. .

In a potential embarrassment for the administration, a growing number of hemispheric leaders have said they will not attend the U.S. summit Biden is due to host next month in Los Angeles, after officials said he Cuba was unlikely to be invited. Senior administration officials said invitations to the rally, which was due to begin on June 6, had still not been sent out and final decisions had not been made. But they insisted that the new policy measures were unrelated to this controversy.

“The plan is to send out the invites soon,” an official said. “The host has a lot of discretion…we consult with our partners in the region, we have these debates about who to invite, but ultimately it’s the prerogative of the host to make that decision.”

The administration said it did not want “undemocratic” countries, including Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, to attend. In response, the presidents of Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras and several Caribbean states said they would not attend, while a number of others indicated they might not show up.

Officials also deflected the question of whether the apparent reason for reducing the size of the embassy and consulate in the first place – the safety of US diplomats suffering from mysterious illnesses – has been resolved.

The Trump administration has accused the evils of being an “attack” on diplomats by the Cuban government. Cuba denied it and identical ailments were subsequently reported in several countries. The cause of the reported illnesses has never been determined.

“The president has directed us to increase the staff … with the proper security posture,” an administration official said. “We have been working over the past few months to put a plan in place to be able to do this. ”

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