Religious groups to benefit as travel restrictions to Cuba are being eased

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Religious groups to benefit as travel restrictions to Cuba are being eased

Schools, churches and cultural groups will soon find it easier to travel to Cuba, reports Michael Ireland, Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

The Obama administration said Friday it will allow for more U.S. travel to Cuba, making it easier to visit the island.

A senior Obama administration official told The Miami Herald the much-expected move to expand cultural, religious and educational travel to Cuba is part of the administration's continuing “effort to support the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their own future.”

In an article for the Herald by Lesley Clark, the newspaper reports that President Barack Obama is also restoring the amount of money ($2,000) that can be sent to non-family members to the level they were at during part of the Clinton and Bush administrations. There will be a quarterly limit on the amount that any American can send: $500 per quarter to “support private economic activity.''

The newspaper says the administration also will restore the broader “people-to-people'' category of travel, which allows “purposeful'' visits to increase contacts between U.S. and Cuban citizens.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, assailed the revision, saying they ``will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba.

``These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. ``And they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them. These changes undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime.''

But the newspaper says Tampa Democrat Rep. Kathy Castor hailed the news, and suggested Cuban Americans in her community would soon be able to travel directly from Tampa to Cuba if the airport secures authorization.

``The Tampa Bay region has one of the highest Cuban-American populations in this country, but for too long, families have had to travel to Miami in order to get to Cuba,'' said Castor, who sent a letter to Obama before he took office, ``requesting a fresh look at U.S.-Cuban relations and lifting travel restrictions for families.''

The changes could expand the number of U.S. airports from which charter flights to the island depart, the newspaper said.

``We see these changes, in combination with the continuation of the embargo, as a way to enhance civil society in Cuba,'' said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that increased contact between Cubans and Americans could ``support the independence of the Cuban people, making them less dependent on the Cuban state and on Cuban authorities.''

The newspaper says the official dismissed speculation that the administration delayed the changes until after the November election because Democrats in Florida feared it would hurt them among Cuban-American voters -- many of whom back tough sanctions against the Cuban regime.

``This package of changes was the result of an interagency process that has concluded only in the last couple of days,'' the administration official said. ``They are rolling out now that they are ready to be rolled out.''

The newspaper adds the official underscored that the changes do not lift the economic embargo and that tourist travel to Cuba remains illegal, as does sending remittances to senior government or Communist party officials.

The White House said the changes do not require congressional approval and the changes will be published in the Federal Register.

Under the changes, religious institutions in the U.S. will be able to sponsor trips to Cuba by their members with a general license.

ANS ( founder Dan Wooding has been to Cuba on three occasions -- once with his wife Norma. On each occasion he used his British passport and was able to travel widely throughout the island.

"I welcome this news and hope that many more Christians, especially from the USA, will now start visiting their brothers and sisters in Cuba," he said.

"They are really special believers and, not only will visitors be able to bring them encouragement, but also will be greatly blessed by meeting with them."

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