Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Silvia Wilhelm: Cuba privisions in Omnibus Bill is not what Obama promissed

Cuba travel moves fall short of Obama pledge: group

Wed Mar 11, 2009 6:46pm EDT

By Pascal Fletcher

MIAMI (Reuters) - U.S. steps easing travel to Cuba fall short of a pledge by President Barack Obama, who should lift curbs on visits by Cuban-Americans to the island, a group in favor of ending such restrictions said on Wednesday.

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday cut off funds for enforcing stricter rules on Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba, introduced in 2004 by former President George W. Bush to tighten the U.S. embargo on the Communist-ruled island.

While praising the new provisions, which were included in a $410 billion spending bill, the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights said they did nothing to remove existing restrictions on travel to Cuba.

"This does not address the issue of Cuban-American travel, it certainly does not address the issue of American travel (to Cuba)," Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of the Miami-based group, told Reuters.

The United States bars Americans from traveling to Cuba without a special license. Travelers who violate the restrictions can face stiff fines, a practice that became more frequent during Bush's administration.

Bush had strong backing from the Cuban-American community, which generally opposes liberalizing ties with the Castro government in Havana. But many Cuban-Americans bitterly opposed curbs on visiting their relatives in Cuba.

Under Bush's 2004 rules, Cuban-Americans are limited to visiting relatives in Cuba once every three years and only if those relatives fit a narrow definition of family, which excludes aunts, uncles and cousins.

Obama signed the spending bill on Wednesday and it will remain in effect until October.

Wilhelm said the new provisions meant that authorities would "look the other way" if Cuban Americans visited Cuba more frequently in the future, but she noted that such trips would remain illegal.

"We just want to remind the administration that this is not what the president promised," said Wilhelm, who added that Obama had in the past said he favored relaxing limits on family travel and cash remittances by Cuban-Americans to Cuba.

CALLS FOR SHIFT IN CUBA POLICY

Obama's inauguration in January and Raul Castro's assumption of the Cuban presidency from ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2008 have stoked hopes of a rapprochement between the two nations after nearly 50 years of political enmity.

While signaling support for some relaxation, Obama has said the 47-year-old trade embargo on Cuba should remain as a way to press for democratic reforms on the island.

The U.S. president faces growing calls both at home and abroad to dismantle the tangle of economic and political sanctions against Cuba, which critics say have failed to spur reforms and have instead helped to entrench Communist rule.

The spending bill, which also eased business travel to Cuba for the purpose of marketing and selling agricultural and medical goods, had encountered resistance from some senators in states with large numbers of anti-communist Cuban-Americans.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote to two balking Democratic senators to assure them that the new provisions would not be implemented in a way that substantially reversed existing U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Wilhelm said the majority of Cuban Americans backed a relaxation of the travel curbs, and she urged Obama to use an upcoming April 17-19 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to present a significant shift in U.S. Cuba policy.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Paul Simao)

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