Cubans applaud rolling back US family travel rules

HAVANA – Cubans say Washington’s easing of travel and spending restrictions for Cuban-Americans visiting the communist island will be a boon to small business and a key step toward warmer relations with the United States.

Juan Carlos Piedra will be able to see his brother, who lives in Florida, more often. Just as important, he expects more business at his little Don Lorenzo restaurant in a crumbling corner of central Havana.

“We have a lot of neighbors who have family abroad. When their relatives visit, they bring them here,” said the 53-year-old restaurant owner.

The U.S. Senate late Tuesday approved a $410 billion spending bill that rolls back Bush administration restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting relatives — effectively increasing allowable trips to once a year and spending to $179 a day.

The bill, which already passed the House of Representatives, was expected to be signed by President Barack Obama Wednesday. It also removes limits on how long people can stay in Cuba.

The vote doesn’t change existing restrictions, but prohibits spending on enforcement — thus reverting to travel rules before they there tightened by Bush in 2004 and 2005.

“I think it is a fair measure for the Cubans who are over there and for us Cubans who are here,” said Omar Lugones, a 58-year-old Cuban Central Bank employee. “It’s a measure that softens relations and all that is good.”

The change comes at a time of increasing global pressure for the U.S. to lift its nearly 50-year-old trade embargo against the island.

Cuba’s government had no official reaction Wednesday. Instead the Communist Party daily Granma published a story about the U.S. Treasury Department fining a U.S. dairy for doing business with Cuba, saying the sanction proves the Obama White House “ratifies the policy of blockade” against this country.

Criticism was also muted from Miami’s Cuban expatriate community, where some have complained that eased restrictions will just put money in the pockets of the communist government, which runs 90 percent of the economy and owns the vast majority of stores where family members shop.

Obama has said he supports the trade embargo. But he can further ease travel restrictions by executive order and has indicated that he intends to do so.

“As a candidate, President Obama promised — as did the Democratic Party platform — to repeal all limits on family travel and family support, and we fully expect him to keep this pledge,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Cuba’s small, intensely regulated private sector saw significant losses when former President George W. Bush barred Americans from visiting family in Cuba more than once every three years. He also limited stays to two weeks and spending to $50 a day.

Taxi drivers and street artists said they stand to gain from the presence of more Americans.

Cuban-Americans don’t mind paying top dollar for art, said Enrique Martin, who sells watercolor paintings in an open-air market near the Havana cathedral.

“An Italian may buy a painting, but he will negotiate away 80 percent of the value. An American, as a hobby, will haggle with you, but then pay you what you want,” he said. “Cuban-Americans do that too, because they have lived in the U.S. so long.”

Bush also had capped the amount that can be sent from the U.S. to family on the island at $300 every three months.

The amount of money Cuban-Americans send to the island is sure to grow as more visiting family members arrive with cash, rather than sending it through money transfer channels.

The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America estimates that in 2003, Cubans abroad sent $96 million to the island. That number fell after the Bush restrictions, though reliable estimates on how much are hard to come by.

“It’s a fact that the money that comes into the country through family remittances is indispensable,” said saleswoman Lucia Pino, 34. “With the world economic crisis we are going through it is really important.”