The Biden administration is restarting a stalled visa programme for Cubans and will allow more flights and visits to the island, softening former president Donald Trump’s harder line against the communist government.
President Joe Biden’s decision came after a more than year-long review of policy towards the country, where the economy has been squeezed by the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, spurring a jump in Cuban migration to the US.
Biden’s administration said it will aim to issue 20,000 visas under a family reunification programme for Cubans to join their relatives in the US. It will also permit more commercial flights to destinations beyond Havana for group educational trips and lift a $1,000 limit on quarterly remittances.
“These measures will aim to support greater freedom and expand economic opportunities for the Cuban people,” a senior Biden administration official said on Monday.
The war in Ukraine has hurt the Cuban economy, with fuel scarcity causing blackouts and limited public transport available. That disruption came after a pandemic slump in dollar revenue from tourism led to chronic food and medicine shortages.
The economic crisis has driven more Cubans to try to migrate to the US. Since October, almost 80,000 Cubans have crossed the US-Mexico border, more than double the number in 2021, according to statistics from US Customs and Border Protection. Arrivals from Cuba surged in March, when border patrol agents encountered more than double the number in all of 2020.
The new measures are partly a reversal of Trump’s restrictions on the island, which has been subject to a US trade embargo since the 1960s. Former president Barack Obama eased some of the toughest measures while in office, but Trump rolled back his predecessor’s actions, describing it as a “one-sided deal”.
US policy towards Cuba also has electoral ramifications, as conservative Cuban-American voters who tend to favour a harder line on the island’s communist government represent a significant bloc in the swing state of Florida.
Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida denounced the announcement, while Democrat Bob Menendez from New Jersey, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, said he was “dismayed” by the authorisation of group travel.
“To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial,” he said in a statement. “For decades, the world has been travelling to Cuba and nothing has changed.”
The senior Biden administration official said the measures, which also included support for Cuban entrepreneurs, would be implemented over the coming weeks and that it was committed to human rights issues.
In just a few weeks, the US is due to host the Summit of the Americas, one of the most important political meetings in the hemisphere. Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and other Latin American leaders have threatened to not attend unless Cuba is invited.
The senior Biden administration official said the measures were not linked to the summitt, and a decision on whether Cuba would be invited had not been made.