By: Scott Horsley
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Our current president is packing his bags for Cuba. President Obama will be in Havana next week. And pretty soon, it'll be easier for you to go there too. The Obama administration continues to chip away at the legal barriers limiting travel and trade with Cuba. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the changes that were announced today.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Ever since the U.S. and Cuba ended their diplomatic estrangement 15 months ago, bureaucrats have been rewriting the rules, cracking open doors of commerce and communication that were frozen shut for decades. Ben Rhodes is the deputy national security advisor who helped broker the change.
BEN RHODES: The simple basis of our policy is that by loosening these restrictions, we are better able to engage with the Cuban people, to support them and to build bridges between our two countries.
HORSLEY: Earlier changes have already led to a surge in travel. More than 160,000 Americans visited Cuba last year. That's expected to grow further when U.S. airlines resume scheduled service to the island likely this fall. You still can't simply book a pleasure trip to Cuba, but anyone can go so long as you say you're traveling for an approved purpose such as education. Starting today, Rhodes says, educational visitors can travel on their own without having to sign up for a costly group tour.
RHODES: The combination of direct flights and individual people - the people that travel - should significantly enable an increase in people-to-people engagement.
HORSLEY: Other changes announced today are designed to ease financial transactions and allow Cuban athletes, artists and performers to collect salaries in the U.S. That could enable Cuban baseball players, for example, to sign with a major league team without having to defect. Baseball diplomacy will be an element of the president's visit next week. Obama is expected to attend an exhibition game between he Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team. James Williams, who's with the business lobbying group Engage Cuba, notes it's the first time in nearly 90 years that a U.S. president has traveled to Cuba.
JAMES WILLIAMS: I can tell you that the people of Cuba are elated about this trip. You know, there is such an energy in the streets. Every person, as soon as they find out you're from the United States, they reach out their hand and say, Obama, we love Obama.
HORSLEY: But Williams notes the president's power to restore commercial ties between the U.S. and Cuba is limited.
WILLIAMS: While the Obama administration has some authority to open up some areas of economic activity, which it has, the vast majority of commerce is still blocked as a result of the embargo.
HORSLEY: The White House and others continue to press Congress to lift the embargo imposed half a century ago. But some critics of the Castro regime insist that's premature. Republican Congressman Ed Royce of California, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, complains the administration has already made too many one-sided concessions, propping up a communist regime with a long record of human rights abuses. The White House says Obama will raise the issue of human rights when he meets with Cuban leaders next week.