HAVANA TIMES, Jan 17 (IPS) — The Cuban government welcomed the latest U.S. measures to ease restrictions on travel and remittances to this country, but said they had a “limited reach.”
Meanwhile, academics who spoke to IPS said the easing of the rules by an executive order issued last Friday by U.S. President Barack Obama would boost this country’s nascent private sector.
In a statement published Monday by Cuba’s government media, the Foreign Ministry said “the measures confirm that there is no willingness to change the policy of blockade and destabilization against Cuba,” and they will be used “to strengthen the instruments of subversion and interference in the internal affairs of Cuba.”
Nevertheless, the communiqué says the measures were the result of broad sectors of U.S. society that for years have sought the end of the embargo against Cuba and the elimination of the ban on travel to this Caribbean island nation by U.S. citizens.
The changes announced by the White House on Friday authorize visits to Cuba by U.S. citizens for academic, educational, cultural and religious purposes; allow anyone in the U.S. to send money to non-family members in Cuba to support private economic activity; and permits U.S. airports to apply to provide services to licensed charters.
“Resources are going to come in, but via private property and civil society,” Cuban researcher Esteban Morales told IPS.
At the same time, he warned that while the new flows of money will bring benefits, they will also pose “risks, because they will compound pressure on the government from the blockade, which is still intact.”
From the United States, Arturo Lopez- Levy, a Cuban-born lecturer at the University of Denver, Colorado, commented to IPS that the measures would contribute to exchanges between the academic communities of the two countries, “at a strategic time in which economic reforms in Havana are picking up momentum.”
Student and religious contacts will be facilitated by the decision to reinstate policies towards Cuba implemented by the government of Democrat Bill Clinton (1993-2001), which were eliminated in 2003 by the Republican administration of George W. Bush (2001-2009).
According to the Foreign Ministry statement, Cuba has always favored such exchanges. “All of the obstacles standing in the way of visits by U.S. citizens to Cuba have been, and still are, thrown up by the U.S. government.”
In April 2009 Obama had already allowed unlimited travel and money transfers by Cubans in the U.S. to their families in Cuba.
Now, any U.S. citizen can send up to 2,000 dollars a year to people in Cuba, except to government officials or active members of the ruling Communist Party.
“This easing of restrictions could be an important palliative for Cubans trying to open new businesses, given the recent dismissals (of government employees) and the new openness to small and medium enterprises,” said Lopez-Levy, who also stressed that the increase in travel “could be substantial.”
In his view, Washington’s new rules will give a boost to Cuba’s recent economic opening, with charter flights and more U.S. visitors from cities distant from the few places where flights are currently authorized, especially if San Juan, Puerto Rico and cities in northern Florida are allowed to provide services to charters.
In accordance with Obama’s executive order, any international airport in the United States could potentially offer flights to Cuba, as long as it has appropriate customs and immigration services and the planes are operated by licensed charter companies.
Currently, Havana only receives U.S. flights from Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
The White House statement said the measures “increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities.”
Morales pointed out that among the changes to straighten out the Cuban economy adopted by the government of Raúl Castro are plans to put an end to state paternalism, and continued mass layoffs of government workers aimed at pushing a large part of the workforce into private enterprise.
“It is clear that no political process along the lines of Cuba’s collapses from the outside, and apparently Obama has decided that his policies should focus on winning over broader and broader segments of civil society and turning them against the government, as far as possible,” Morales said.
For his part, Lopez-Levy said it is a “fact” that greater contacts with Cuban academics could open up important doors to debate in Cuba and influence the Castro government’s decision-making mechanisms.
“This opening is potentially the start of a thaw in bilateral relations,” and its significance will be gauged not by the number of exchanges that occur, “but by the capacity of the Cuban and U.S. governments to sustain a process of communications and dialogue that constructively manages these new relations,” he said in an email interview.
“Obama has taken a difficult step: he kept the conservative Cuban-Americans, who are opposed to the president’s preference for dialogue and exchanges, from dictating the bilateral agenda. The exile community won’t forgive, no matter how significant the opening” in Cuba, the academic added.
This step also generates better conditions for discussion of the arrest in Cuba of Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor, in a less tense atmosphere than the one created by the Cuban-American right, which wants to turn the issue into a barrier that is insurmountable by any constructive gesture, he added.
The measures were announced in Washington just 24 hours after Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson visited Gross, who has been in prison in Cuba without charges since December 2009.
Cuban authorities say Gross is a spy who was distributing “sophisticated” communications systems to dissidents on the island. But Washington says he travelled to Cuba as a contractor, to deliver cell-phones and computers to the Jewish community.
Jacobson headed the U.S. delegation in last Wednesday’s immigration talks with officials in Cuba.
Periodic talks were to be held every six months to review the 1994 and 1995 migration accords signed after the so-called rafters’ crisis of August 1994, when at least 30,000 Cubans set out for the United States in makeshift rafts, inner tubes and old boats.
Last week’s was the fourth round of talks since the meetings, which had been interrupted in 2003, were resumed under Obama.
On her visit to Cuba, Jacobson met with dissidents, which the Cuban Foreign Ministry described as a “provocation.”