WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Monday eased the way for U.S. telecommunications firms to do business with Cuba and relaxed some other restrictions on the communist-ruled island, opening a crack in a decades-old U.S. embargo.
As part of a major policy shift from the Bush administration's more hardline approach to Havana, Obama lifted limits on family travel and money transfers by Cuban Americans in the United States to Cuba.
The decisions unveiled by the White House do not eliminate Washington's trade embargo against Cuba set up 47 years ago, but it does hold out the prospect for improving ties between the two longtime foes.
The president has directed that a series of steps be taken to reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic human rights, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters. These are actions he has taken to open up the flow of information.
Administration officials said Obama hoped the new measures would encourage Cuba's one-party state to start implementing long-demanded democratic reforms.
Shares of companies that stand to gain from a thaw in U.S. ties with Cuba soared on the news, led by Canadian mining and energy company Sherritt International, a major player in Cuba's nickel and oil industry, whose stock rose 17.6 percent.
Shares of Miami-based cruise operator Royal Caribbean also jumped on hopes that the No. 2 cruise ship operator and rival Carnival, could sail to Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States.
Under the changes introduced, the Obama administration will now allow U.S. telecommunications companies and satellite radio and television service providers to seek licenses and agreements to operate in Cuba, the White House said.
Signaling prospects for further gestures, Obama also directed his government to look into the possibility of starting regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba. Air travel between the United States and Cuba is limited to charter flights at present.
Supporters of easing U.S. sanctions against Cuba welcomed the family-related move, which will affect an estimated 1.5 million Americans who have relatives in Cuba.
They voiced hope it would lead to even bolder steps by Obama to dismantle the trade embargo, which critics argue is an obsolete policy that has failed to foster change in Cuba.
But conservative critics of Obama's strategy said it would provide an increased cash flow to prop up Cuba's communist government.
Obama had promised during the presidential campaign to allow Cuban Americans to travel more freely to Cuba and increase financial help to family members there, but some opposition Republicans have opposed such moves.
Obama's gesture appeared intended to signal a new attitude toward both Cuba and other Latin American countries that have pressed Washington to end a trade embargo that has sought to isolate Havana for more than four decades.
It also comes ahead of Obama's attendance at a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad later this week.
Cuba is among the U.S. foes Obama has said he would be willing to engage diplomatically, instead of shunning them as his predecessor George W. Bush did.