South Florida's Cuban community mixed on policy change

President Barack Obama's overture Monday toward Cuba — the most significant in decades — lifted all travel and gift restrictions for Cuban Americans and sent charter companies scrambling for more and bigger jets to meet the expected demand.

The formal announcement, expected for months as part of a presidential campaign promise, came at what apparently was the first-ever bilingual White House briefing, with spokesman Robert Gibbs saying Obama was "taking some concrete steps today to bring about some much-needed change that will benefit the people of Cuba, to increase the freedom that they have. . . . "

The policy change – which includes pushing for more cellphone and satellite service for Cubans on the island – strikes middle ground, reversing former President George W. Bush's efforts to tighten restrictions against Cuba but stopping far short of some efforts in Congress to lift all travel restrictions to the island.

In Miami, travel agencies began considering additional charter flights and bigger planes.

But the policy change also reignites one of the most emotionally charged issues in Miami's Cuban exile community: Should exiles visit the island they fled, and in doing so, help prop up the communist government's economy with U.S. dollars?

At Marazul Charters on Bird Road, exile Esteban Fernandez, 75, was among the conflicted. He left the island 47 years ago but has an ailing parent there.

"My mother is 97 years old. She doesn't have much time," Fernandez said. "If it were up to me, I'd never go back, but I need to see my mother."

In a "reflection" published by the Cuban media late Monday, Fidel Castro said the Obama administration has lifted "some odious restrictions" on travel by Cuban Americans, but added that the decision included "not a word" about lifting the trade embargo.

Castro added that Cuba does not "question [Obama's] sincerity and his willingness to change the policy and image of the United States."

White House officials said the announcement is aimed at hastening change on the island in part by increasing contact with Cuban Americans and helping Cubans become less reliant on government.

"We think the positive benefits here will way outweigh any negative effects that they may have," said Dan Restrepo, a special assistant to the president who delivered his remarks in English and Spanish. "That creating independence, creating space for the Cuban people to operate freely from the regime is the kind of space they need to start the process toward a more democratic Cuba."

The changes include allowing unlimited family visits and remittances, allowing U.S. companies to seek contracts for communication services in Cuba and an expansion of humanitarian items that can be sent. Bush had limited family travel to once every three years, though Congress last month eased travel to once a year.

Obama campaigned on a promise to improve relations with Cuba, and the policy changes have support among Cuban Americans who'd like to visit family more often. Farm state senators and trade groups have urged Obama to lift the travel ban entirely.

Supporters of a hard-line stance against the communist regime, though, criticized Obama for not seeking concessions from Havana. In a joint statement, Miami Republican Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart said Obama has made "a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship."

They said Obama should insist that Cuba release political prisoners, legalize political parties, labor unions and the press, and schedule elections.

Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez called the unrestricted travel and remittances "troubling" in that the government could make money, but he suggested the ball is now in Cuba's court.

"It puts the onus on the Cuban government to now reciprocate and now act," Martinez said. "It now belongs to Havana, and what is Havana going to do for the Cuban people?"

There was little debate in Miami that the changes would mean more trips: Armando Garcia, owner of Marazul Charters, said he had added another rotation of flights after Congress eased travel restrictions last month.

"We've been running flights at full capacity," Garcia said. "It just shows that the demand was always there. Even with the economy being in a bad state, people want to see their families on their terms, whenever they can."

The White House also called on the regime to end its practice of keeping a portion of every remittance.

"The president's very clear that we're getting the United States out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families," Restrepo said. "The Cuban government should get out of the business of regulating the relationship between Cuban families."

The Cuban American National Foundation, a leading exile group that has sought more interaction with Cuba in recent years, applauded the decision, saying the Bush administration's hands-off stance had done little to improve the lives of Cubans on the island.

"We believe that the announcement today of the changes will help the Cuban people to become protagonists of their [own] changes in Cuba," CANF president Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, said at a news conference in Little Havana.

The new policy also would expand the range of things that can be sent to Cuba, including clothing, personal hygiene items and fishing equipment. Still prohibited: sending items to senior government officials and Communist Party members.

The announcement is timed to coincide with the fifth Summit of the Americas, which opens this week in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Latin American leaders have pressed the administration to normalize relations with Cuba, and its outsider status will be a topic of conversation.

Both Gibbs and Restrepo dismissed suggestions that the changes were made to curry favor with Latin America, noting that Obama had promised during a campaign stop in Miami to change U.S.-Cuba policy.

Cuba watchers say the regime is unlikely to make any grand gestures in response. Havana wants the U.S. to repeal the trade embargo, which the administration has resisted.

For some, the changes may not have gone far enough. The move comes a week after members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with both Castro brothers and said they planned to ask Obama to start talking to the Cuban government.

Bills to lift the travel ban have been introduced in both chambers of Congress, and Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., who has long pushed for travel to Cuba, called Obama's move "a critical first step toward changing a policy that has been a complete failure.

"Now it's up to us in Congress to take the next step, and end travel restrictions on all Americans," said Delahunt.

Restrepo wouldn't say whether Obama would back lifting all travel restrictions.

At Xael Charters, owner Xiomara Almaguer spent Monday fielding congratulatory calls.

"I can only think to myself, 'Finally!' " Almaguer said. "That's not just from the point of view of a business owner, but from the viewpoint of a Cubana who had to live with a president determining when and how long I could travel to a country."

Miami Herald staff writers Laura Figueroa, Trenton Daniel, Myriam Marquez, Elaine DeValle and translator Renato Perez contributed to this report.

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