Today, President Obama issued an executive order easing restrictions on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba. This is a positive step toward changing a failed policy, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
"This is the most significant relaxation of the travel ban in the last two decades" said Geoff Thale, WOLA Program Director. The changes significantly ease regulations on travel to Cuba for educational, religious and cultural exchanges. They also permit "people-to-people" travel, allowing licensed groups to travel to Cuba for interchange with the Cuban people. The Clinton Administration authorized this sort of travel in the late 1990s, a move reversed by the Bush Administration in 2003.
"This is a welcome step that comes at an opportune time," said Thale. There are significant changes underway in Cuba, including Raul Castro's plans to restructure the moribund Cuban economy by laying off half a million workers from state payrolls and expanding private sector employment; not to mention the unprecedented release of over fifty political prisoners. Thale commented that "Easing travel restrictions is smart diplomacy on the part of the United States, it shows that the U.S. recognizes the positive changes taking place in Cuba and it will encourage continued reform on the island."
Interestingly, the announcement comes just after U.S. and Cuban officials met in Havana for regularly scheduled talks on migration issues. Press reports suggested that discussions there led to progress in resolving the situation of Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen detained in Cuba for alleged improper activities.
"Despite obvious obstacles to positive relations between our two countries, the U.S. is demonstrating that the way forward is through greater dialogue and engagement with our island neighbor," said Thale adding that "At the Summit of the Americas in April of 2009, the President told Latin American leaders he wanted to seek new openings with Cuba, today the President made progress toward fulfilling that commitment."
Congress debated Cuba travel policy through much of 2010, but didn't act. Many analysts predicted that Administration was unlikely to take action on changes to Cuba policy given the new majority Republican Congress. "In issuing this executive order, the President is advancing his foreign policy agenda based on what is best for the United States," said Thale.