Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cubans applaud U.S. bill easing trade, travel

Tue Mar 10, 2009 9:57pm EDT

By Rosa Tania Valdes

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans applauded on Tuesday the passage of a bill by the U.S. Congress that would ease some travel and trade restrictions against the communist island, but said they hope for more changes under President Barack Obama.

The bill, which appropriates $410 billion to fund the U.S. government, includes provisions allowing Cuban-Americans to visit their families in Cuba more frequently and makes it easier to sell agricultural and medical goods to Cuba.

It undoes some Bush administration rules that toughened the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, a Cold War policy which Havana blames for the perennial economic woes afflicting the island just 90 miles from Florida.

"I'm happy they are easing the rules so the Cubans can come. Families should not have to suffer because of political disputes between governments," teacher Hugo Alfonso told Reuters in Havana.

"Cubans have suffered the embargo for many years and (President George W.) Bush tightened the rope. Now is the time to improve relations between the two countries," he said.

In Miami, there were mixed reactions from the Cuban exile community, which is split between those who favor greater contact and opening between Washington and Havana and some anti-communist hard-liners who oppose any easing of U.S. sanctions on Cuba under the rule of Fidel and Raul Castro.

The bill, which Obama still must sign into law, would allow Cuban-Americans to visit the island annually instead of once every three years as the Bush government mandated. They could also stay longer than the current two weeks.

"People-to-people contact is the number one factor of change in a closed society like the one in Cuba. It's also the right of a Cuban to be able to return to his country," Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the Democracy Movement, said in Miami.

But he urged President Obama to use his authority to completely lift restrictions on travel. "He can do it with the stroke of a pen," he said.

RAISED HOPES

The bill also would permit marketers and sellers of agricultural and medical products, which are exempted from the embargo, to travel more easily to Cuba.

"It will be something good that will improve commerce with the United States," 19-year-old Arnier Negrin said in Havana. "I hope they change other things, but I'm not too optimistic."

But in Miami, anti-Castro Cuban exile TV and radio commentator Ninoska Perez criticized the steps contained in the bill as "rewarding a 50-year-old dictatorship".

"It has nothing to do with the families because there are a lot of families that cannot travel to Cuba ... It's pure economic interests," she said.

Obama raised hopes for change in Cuba with promises that he would permit family members to visit the island more frequently and raise the $100-per-month limit on cash remittances they may send to their relatives on the island.

The remittances are important for many Cubans, who receive several social benefits, but scrape by on salaries that average only about $20 a month.

Many on the island believe Obama will end the embargo, although he said during the presidential campaign that he would maintain the policy to use as leverage for change in Cuba.

Cuban President Raul Castro and his older brother and predecessor Fidel Castro have praised Obama's personal qualities, but tried to dampen expectations by saying that one man cannot change long-standing U.S. policy aimed at toppling the Cuban government.

Tuesday's bill ran into surprisingly stiff opposition, including from two of Obama's fellow Democrats, showing that change in U.S.-Cuba policy will not come easily.

Still, Niurys Alfaro, 25, said her hopes remain high.

"I would like for Obama to change things and I believe he understands that the hostile policy of his country serves nothing," she said.

"I hope they let him do good things."

(Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Editing by Jeff Franks and Anthony Boadle)

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