US revises Cuba policy, eases restrictions on remittances, travel

The revisions mark the most significant changes in the US approach to Cuba under President Joe Biden. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States on Monday (May 16) announced a series of steps to revise its policy towards Cuba, including easing some Trump-era restrictions on family remittances and travel to the island and sharply increasing the processing of US visas for Cubans.

The measures, which come after a lengthy US government review, mark the most significant changes in the US approach to Havana since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.

But the announcement stopped short of returning US-Cuba relations to the historic rapprochement engineered by former president Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice-president. That included less crimped flow of remittances, fewer travel curbs and faster visa services.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price in a statement said the measures announced on Monday were to "further support the Cuban people, providing them additional tools to pursue a life free from Cuban government oppression and to seek greater economic opportunities".

The State Department said the United States would lift the cap on family remittances, previously set to US$1,000 (S$1,390) per quarter, and authorise donative remittances to non-family members.

But it made clear that the United States would not remove entities from the Cuba Restricted List, a State Department list of Cuban government- and military-aligned companies with whom US firms and citizens are barred from doing business.

"We are going to ensure that remittances flow more freely to the Cuban people, while not enriching those who perpetrate human rights abuses," an administration official said earlier on Monday.

The United States will use civilian "electronic payment processors" for remittances to avoid funds going directly to the Cuban government, the official said, adding that the United States had already engaged with the Cuban government "about establishing a civilian processor for this".

Biden officials have been mindful that easing restrictions on Cuba could lead to political fallout from conservative Cuban Americans, a key voting bloc in south Florida who mostly backed former president Donald Trump's tough policies on Cuba.

Trump slashed visa processing, restricted remittances, scaled back flights to the island and increased hurdles for US citizens seeking to travel to Cuba for anything other than family visits.

There were few details on how the new policy would be implemented.

The Cuban embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Family reunification

Among the changes is a plan to reinstate the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Programme, which had provided a legal way for Cuban families to be reunited in the United States, and increase capacity for consular services.

Washington will aim to issue 20,000 immigrant visas a year, the official said, in line with a migration accord.

A Cuban man queueing at the US Embassy in Havana, after Washington started issuing visas to Cubans, on May 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The US embassy in Havana began issuing a trickle of immigrant visas to Cubans this month, making good on an earlier promise to restart visa processing on the island after a four-year hiatus.

The State Department under Trump sharply scaled back embassy staff in 2017 following a spate of "anomalous health incidents"that came to be known as "Havana syndrome". Cubans seeking to emigrate to the United States were instead directed to apply for visas in person at the US embassies first in Colombia, and later in Guyana, costly trips beyond the reach of many.

The Biden administration will also expand authorised travel to Cuba, allowing scheduled and charter flights to and from the country to use airports other than Havana, according to the State Department.

Washington will also reinstate some categories of group educational travel, as well as certain travel related to professional meetings and research.

Individual "people-to-people" travel, however, will not be reinstated. The category was eliminated by Trump officials who said it was being abused by Americans taking beach vacations.

The United States will also increase support for independent Cuban entrepreneurs, aiming to ease access to the Internet and expanding access to microfinance and training, among other measures.

Biden promised during the 2020 election to re-engage with Cuba. He instead imposed fresh sanctions on Cuban officials in response to Havana's crackdown on protesters following widespread marches on the island last July.

Hundreds were arrested during and after the demonstrations, widely considered to be the largest protests since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. Washington has condemned Cuban authorities for harsh sentences that have been given to some.

The Cuban government blamed the protests on meddling by the United States.

"We continue to call on the Cuban government to immediately release political prisoners, to respect the Cuban people's fundamental freedoms and to allow the Cuban people to determine their own futures," Price said.

The officials said a decision has not been made on whether to invite Cuba to next month's US-hosted Summit of the Americas. Mexico and others have threatened to not attend unless all countries in the Americas are invited.

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