By Michael Wilner and Nora Gámez Torres
Miami Herald, Updated May 17, 2022 10:03 AM
The Biden administration is restoring flights to Cuban cities other than Havana and reestablishing a family reunification program suspended for years, following recommendations of a long-anticipated review of U.S. policy toward Cuba, senior administration officials told McClatchy and the Miami Herald on Monday. The administration will also allow group travel for educational or professional exchanges and lift caps on money sent to families on the island.
The policy changes come after a months-long review that began in earnest after a series of protests roiled the island nation on July 11, prompting a new round of U.S. sanctions on Cuban officials.
Cuba is facing the worst economic crisis since the Soviet Union collapsed, with widespread shortages of food and medicines, and thousands of Cubans trying to reach the United States. One senior administration official said the new policy measures allow the administration to continue supporting the Cuban people and guarding U.S. national security interests.
“Our policy continues to center on human rights, empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future and these are practical measures intended to address the humanitarian situation and the migration flows,” the official said, adding that labor rights will also be at the center of any talks with the Cuban government.
As promised in his campaign for the White House, President Joe Biden will reverse several of the measures taken by his predecessor, including by allowing commercial and charter flights to destinations outside the Cuban capital. Currently, American airline companies can only fly to Havana, leaving Cuban Americans with few options to visit their families in other provinces.
The Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, which has not taken new cases since 2016 and left 22,000 pending applications in limbo, will also be reinstated, the officials said, following bipartisan calls to address the issue. An administration official said the United States intends to uphold migration accords with Cuba from the 1990s, under which the United States committed to issuing 20,000 immigration visas to Cubans annually, a request made by a Cuban government delegation that recently traveled to Washington to discuss an ongoing wave of Cubans trying to reach the U.S. mainland by land and sea. One senior administration official also said the State Department will increase visa processing in the embassy in Havana, which resumed this month.
Other measures include lifting the cap on family remittances, currently $1,000 per quarter per person, with an eye on supporting the emerging private sector. The officials said the administration will encourage more electronic payment companies to work in Cuba to facilitate remittances. Official remittance channels were shut down after the Trump administration sanctioned Fincimex, the financial firm run by the Cuban military, and the Cuban government refused to pass the business to a non-military entity. Fincimex will not be removed from the Cuba sanction list, one senior official said, but the administration “has engaged” in talks with the Cuban government about finding a non-military entity to process remittances.
The administration will also expand travel to Cuba by once again allowing group travel under the “people-to-people” educational travel category, which was created under former President Barack Obama to allow Americans to visit the island on organized tours to promote exchanges between the two countries. The Trump administration later restricted most non-family travel to Cuba and eliminated the category in 2019. The U.S. officials said there will be more regulatory changes to allow certain travel related to professional meetings and professional research, but individual people-to-people travel will remain prohibited.
Other measures aim at supporting independent Cuban entrepreneurs by authorizing access to expanded cloud technology, application programming interfaces and e-commerce platforms. The officials said the administration will “explore” options to facilitate electronic payments and expand Cuban entrepreneurs’ access to microfinancing. Last week, the Treasury Department for the first time authorized an American company to offer a microloan and investment to a small Cuban private business.
The changes were announced later on Monday but will be implemented in the coming weeks. The Biden administration has fielded criticism for so far keeping in place most measures taken by President Trump, who vowed a “maximum pressure” campaign against the communist government over its role in Venezuela. But some Cuban exiles, Cuban American Republican politicians and activists on the island have expressed concern about any easing of sanctions at a time the government has cracked down on protesters and handed down harsh sentences to July 11 demonstrators. A senior administration official said the administration consulted the policy options with members of Congress and Cuban Americans.
Minutes after the official release, Sen. Bob Menéndez, a powerful Cuban American democrat who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, said the timing of the announcement risks “sending the wrong message” as Cuban authorities continue the crackdown on Cubans critical of the government. “I am dismayed to learn the Biden administration will begin authorizing group travel to Cuba through visits akin to tourism, Menéndez said in a statement. “To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial. For decades, the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed. A senior administration official told reporters on Monday evening that the Treasury Department can audit these trips and the administration will ensure that group travel takes place according to the law. In a statement released Monday evening,
Cuban foreign affairs ministry called the policy changes a “limited step in the right direction” but not enough in modifying the U.S. embargo.
Relations between Washington and Havana soured over the island wide anti-government demonstration last July. President Biden ordered sanctions against the military, police and security forces involved in the crackdown. And Havana responded by saying the demonstrations were financed by the United States. The more recent spat involves the invitations to attend the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of leaders from nations in the hemisphere to be held in Los Angeles in June. The U.S. government has said Cuba will likely not receive one. A senior administration said the invitations have not been issued yet. But the current wave of Cuban migrants reaching the U.S. southern border got the two governments to sit down for the first time since president Biden took office. The Cuban diplomat leading the talks, Carlos Fernández de Cossio, said he left with the sense that the talks could be the first step to improving relations. A senior administration official said the U.S. delegation did not address policy topics beyond migration.