Some travel restrictions to Cuba to be lifted

The Obama administration today will lift travel and gift restrictions for Cuban Americans, allowing them to travel more freely to the island and send additional financial help to family members.

The policy change marks the most significant U.S. gesture to Cuba in decades and comes amid efforts in Congress to lift all travel restrictions to the island.

"This is an effort to reach out to the Cuban people in an effort to support the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their country's future," a senior administration official told The Miami Herald. "The president has said this is the most direct means to open up the kind of space that is necessary to see democratic change in Cuba."

The changes also include licensing steps to open up greater communication to the island and expanding the items that can be sent to the island, including clothing, personal hygiene items and fishing equipment.

Still prohibited: sending items to senior government officials and Communist Party members.

The announcement is timed to coincide with the fifth Summit of the Americas, which opens this week in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Latin American leaders have pressed the administration to normalize relations with Cuba, and its outsider status is likely to be a topic of conversation.

The latest restrictions were imposed by President George W. Bush in 2004, months before the presidential election and after the regime imprisoned 75 dissidents during a crackdown.

Obama campaigned on a pledge to improve relations with Cuba, but the administration has pledged not to lift the trade embargo against Cuba.

"The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba's political prisoners, the right of free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly, and it must lead to elections that are free and fair," Obama said in Miami during a presidential campaign stop. "That is my commitment."

Cuba watchers say the regime is likely to take a subtle response to the policy shift; some in the government would like to see the entire travel ban and trade embargo repealed.

A State Department spokeswoman said last week that as the administration reviews its travel and remittance policies, it ‘‘hope[s] to see evidence that the government of Cuba has committed itself to addressing disparities among its citizens in the enjoyment of human rights and economic opportunities."