Nicholas Maliska is a research intern with the New America Foundation/U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative.
Rumors that the Obama Administration is preparing to announce measures that will ease travel restrictions to Cuba have been circulating for several weeks, but the news now seems to be official with multiple knowledgeable sources indicating that the announcement will come within the next week or two.
The scope of the changes is still unknown and could range from a limited loosening of restrictions on specific licenses back to where it was during the Clinton years to permitting general licenses in all twelve categories of travel, which would facilitate the greatest amount of non-tourist visits to Cuba. The changes will certainly be the biggest development in U.S. policy towards Cuba since President Obama announced the easing of restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances to the island in April 2009 and will send a long overdue signal that the Obama Administration takes Cuba policy seriously.
In the context of U.S.-Cuban relations more broadly, some analysts have been framing this development in the context of a tit-for-tat diplomatic maneuvering with the Cuban government. Earlier this summer after negotiations with the Catholic Church in Cuba, Raul Castro announced that 52 political prisoners would be released (26 of which have been freed and sent to Spain thus far). The easing of travel restrictions, they say, is Washington’s response to the release of the political prisoners.
However, these changes have likely been in the works for some time as Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations indicated in a recent Washington Post article: “It’s a little easier to do it, given the political prisoners’ release. But I think they were going to do it anyway.”
Those looking at the Obama Administration’s announcement as a move in a tit-for-tat framework will expect another gesture from the Cuban government in turn (such as the release of Alan Gross, the USAID contractor imprisoned since last December) before the U.S. makes any further changes. Yet, prompt actions and reform have not been characteristic of the Castros, who have already outlasted ten American Presidents.
The U.S. should not wait on the Cuban government to make further changes that benefit the Cuban people and are in our national interest. The U.S. should continue to readjust its policies to utilize our best asset, the American people, to engage with the Cubans and help in turn to develop a more open Cuban society.
— Nicholas Maliska