Cuban-Americans counting on Barack Obama to ease restrictions on cash,
travel to island
Obama expected to ease restrictions
By William E. Gibson | Sun Sentinel Washington Correspondent
December 22, 2008
WASHINGTON – Ileana Casanova, a second-grade teacher in Miami, can
hardly wait for Barack Obama to become president so that she can go to Cuba.
She's already gathering items in a big box — medicine, shoes, clothing,
toys, pencils and school supplies — to deliver to aunts, uncles and
cousins all over the island.
Barred from visiting her relatives under the George W. Bush
administration, Casanova is counting on Obama to fulfill his campaign
promise to allow Cuban-Americans to make unlimited trips to their
homeland and send as much money as they want.
"I believe he is going to do this soon. My hopes are high," said
Casanova, 58. "It's not the Cuban government that is telling us we can't
go; it's our own government. I believe it's a violation of human rights
not to be able to see your family."
Obama raised these expectations by pledging to undo rules Bush imposed
in 2004 that limit the frequency of trips by Cuban-Americans to visit
immediate family members and the money they can send. The Bush rules
also forbid people like Casanova from traveling to see aunts and uncles
and other extended family.
All sides of the long-running debate over the U.S. embargo of Cuba
assume Obama will remove those travel limits through his executive
power. The big question is whether the new administration and Congress
will work to ease other aspects of the embargo.
The president-elect's appointees and nominees indicate the
administration will be full of people who question a policy that has
isolated Cuba for nearly half a century but failed to force political
These include Eric Holder for attorney general, Susan Rice for chief
delegate to the United Nations, Bill Richardson for commerce secretary,
Gregory Craig for White House counsel and Ray LaHood for transportation
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, nominated for secretary of state,
has said Cuba must move toward democratic reforms before the United
States changes its policy.
The debate turns on whether the United States can prod Cuba toward
democracy and free markets by engaging it through trade and travel or by
depleting its economy through a rigid embargo.
Backers of change hope to reduce the embargo a step at a time.
"You start by opening up travel," said Silvia Wilhelm of Miami,
executive director of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights.
"Then you take Cuba off the terrorist list. That would set the stage for
some kind of dialogue. Let them start talking and see what points of
mutual interest they can agree on."
Sensing an opportunity, Cuban President Raul Castro last week offered to
exchange jailed political dissidents in Cuba for five Cubans imprisoned
in this country for espionage. Castro also reiterated Cuba's willingness
to discuss embargo issues with Obama.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a staunch defender of the embargo, seems
resigned to the removal of some travel restrictions. But the Miami
Republican wants to hold the line on any further changes.
"I expect him [Obama] to do what he said in the campaign: to lift the
Bush regulations of 2004, which limit Cuban-American travel and
remittances," Diaz-Balart said. "I don't agree with that. I support
those measures. They have significantly reduced hard currency for the
"But the president-elect also said he would grant no unilateral
concessions to the dictatorship. I will work in every way to keep him to
Obama may return U.S. policy to the way it was during Bill Clinton's
administration, when looser rules allowed extensive travel to Cuba,
except for tourists. The two governments in those years engaged in
discreet behind-the-scenes diplomacy, mostly to talk about ways to
prevent mass migrations from Cuba to Florida.
Since Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother Raul, the government has
returned land to farmers and allowed some private commerce, but it
remains wary of unleashing capitalist forces or changing its political
"Frankly, the element that prevents any movement forward is the
unwillingness of the Cuban government to engage in basic reforms," said
Frank Calzon, director of the Center for a Free Cuba, based in Washington.
Those who lobby for easing the embargo acknowledge that Obama and
Congress are unlikely to delve too deeply into Cuba policy amid a
financial crisis and the war in Iraq.
"I don't think Congress will make a big push on Cuba policy, but at some
point there will be a healthy debate about it," said Jake Colvin, vice
president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a free-trade group that
represents farmers and businesses that want to open markets for U.S.
goods in Cuba.
"We are hopeful that in addition to lifting the limits on Cuban-American
travel, the Obama administration will go farther to remove other travel
restrictions and allow U.S. businesses to have greater flexibility in
doing business with Cuba."
Casanova said she found it ironic that she was able to visit communist
Vietnam a few years ago as a tourist and to take as much money as she
"Not just Cuban-Americans but all Americans should have the right to
travel to Cuba," she said. "We should be able to travel wherever we want
William E. Gibson can be reached at wgibson@SunSentinel.com or
202-824-8256 in Washington. His blog Juice can be found at