WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Friday said it will allow for more U.S. travel to Cuba, making it easier for schools, churches and cultural groups to visit the island.
A senior Obama official said the much-expected move to expand cultural, religious and educational travel to Cuba is part of the administration's continuing "effort to support the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their own future."
President Barack Obama is also restoring the amount of money ($2,000) that can be sent to nonfamily members to the level they were at during part of the Clinton and Bush administrations. There will be a quarterly limit on the amount that any American can send: $500 per quarter to "support private economic activity.''
The administration also will restore the broader "people-to-people'' category of travel, which allows "purposeful'' visits to increase contacts between U.S. and Cuban citizens.
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Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a Cuban exile and the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, assailed the revision, saying the change "will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba."
"These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. ``And they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them. These changes undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime.''
But Tampa Democrat Rep. Kathy Castor hailed the news and suggested Cuban Americans in her community would soon be able to travel directly from Tampa to Cuba if the airport secures authorization.
"The Tampa Bay region has one of the highest Cuban-American populations in this country, but for too long, families have had to travel to Miami in order to get to Cuba,'' said Castor, who sent a letter to Obama before he took office, ``requesting a fresh look at U.S.-Cuban relations and lifting travel restrictions for families.''
The changes could expand the number of U.S. airports from which charter flights to the island depart.
"We see these changes, in combination with the continuation of the embargo, as a way to enhance civil society in Cuba,'' the administration official said, adding that increased contact between Cubans and Americans could "support the independence of the Cuban people, making them less dependent on the Cuban state and on Cuban authorities.''
The official dismissed speculation that the administration delayed the changes until after the November election because Democrats in Florida feared it would hurt them among Cuban-American voters -- many of whom back tough sanctions against the Cuban regime.
"This package of changes was the result of an interagency process that has concluded only in the last couple of days,'' the administration official said. "They are rolling out now that they are ready to be rolled out.''
The official underscored that the changes do not lift the economic embargo and that tourist travel to Cuba remains illegal, as does sending remittances to senior government or Communist party officials.
The White House said the changes do not require congressional approval and the changes will be published in the Federal Register.
Under the changes, religious institutions in the U.S. will be able to sponsor trips to Cuba by their members with a general license.