HAVANA/MIAMI – President Barack Obama's lifting of U.S. curbs on family travel and remittances to Cuba will bring divided families closer and supplement stressed budgets on the island, Cubans and Cuban Americans said on Monday.
On both sides of the Florida Straits that separate Cuba and the United States, Cubans and exiled relatives generally greeted with enthusiasm the easing of past restrictions, and many hoped this could lead to a wider thaw in relations.
The latest move removed curbs, enforced under the previous Bush administration, on the frequency and duration of visits to the island by Cuban Americans, and on the amount of money they can send family members living in communist-ruled Cuba.
It's good for families, said Orlando Bayona, a 48-year-old office maintenance worker in Miami.
I have family members who go to Cuba to see relatives and carry clothes and money with them. ... There are several who are now planning a trip, they have their tickets, he added.
Independently of their political beliefs, Cuban families split between the United States and the island have chafed at the real limits on contacts dictated by the ideological enmity that has separated the two nations for nearly half a century.
Now they are looking forward to enjoying closer ties.
Families need to be together, so it's a very good step by Obama, said Havana resident Carla Grinan, 47, adding she hoped Cuban authorities would also loosen travel to the United States by their citizens.
I have family there (in the United States) and I would like to see them more than once a year. It's really sad to have family on the other side and to have to wait so much time to see them, said another woman in Havana, Estrella Ramirez, 50, referring to the now lifted restrictions.
CALLS FOR WIDER RELAXATION
Grinan and others said more monetary remittances from relatives would allow people on the island to improve their lives. Cuba's economy took a battering last year from three hurricanes, increasing shortages of many products.
If we get dollars we can live decently, not in luxury, but decently, Grinan said, although she grumbled at the 20 percent levies Cubans have to pay on the sent funds they receive.
In addition to freeing up family travel and remittances, Obama also allowed U.S. telecommunications companies to apply for licenses in Cuba in an initiative the White House said would increase the flow of information to the island.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) hailed the easing of restrictions as a major break from an ineffective and unjust policy, but said the U.S. administration should extend it to give all Americans the right to travel to Cuba.
Not only did the restrictions cause considerable suffering and violate the rights of Cuban American families, but they completely failed to bring any change to Cuba, HRW's Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco said in a statement.
Congress should build on this momentum to give all Americans the right to travel to Cuba, he added.
Obama unveiled the Cuba measures days before he was due to attend a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago with leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean, who were expected to press him to completely end the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
The president has made clear he will not lift the embargo until Cuba shows progress in moving toward democracy.
Senator Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who was the first Cuban American elected to the Senate, said Monday's measures were good news for Cuban families living on both sides of the Florida Straits.
But he told reporters in Miami the onus was now on Cuba's government to respond positively to this gesture by Obama.
The Cuban government now has a tremendous opportunity to reciprocate, by letting people out to visit (the United States), and lowering the 20 percent charged on remittances, he said.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana and Carlos Barria in Miami; editing by Tom Brown and Todd Eastham)