Image: Police officer in Havana
Javier Galeano  /  AP
Restrictions on travel of U.S. citizens with family in Cuba will be lifted, allowing them to visit the island nation more often and stay as long as they like. This photo shows a police officer in Havana on Wednesday.
updated 3/11/2009 7:25:26 PM ET 2009-03-11T23:25:26

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 signed by President Barack Obama on 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. It only remains in effect until the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, however.

'Fair measure for Cubans'
"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 driver, artists stand to gain
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.

Remittances are sure to grow as more visiting family members arrive with cash, rather than sending money through money transfer channels.

The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimated that in 2003, Cubans abroad sent $900 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."

The bill also eases financing rules for imports of U.S. food and medicine into Cuba, suspending enforcement of Bush regulations that required Cuba to pay cash before Americans goods are delivered.

John Parke Wright, a Florida rancher who has exported livestock to Cuba in the past, said the measure means he can proceed with a planned shipment of 1,000 dairy cows to the central city of Camaguey, as part of a Cuban government program to increase beef production.

"It's a small thing," he said. "But it sends an important message to the Cuban government about a normal business and trade relationship."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Travel triumph for Cuban Americans


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