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The Biden administration is relaxing the rules on Cuba. Can it help immigration to the U.S.?

Ramon Espinosa

The Biden administration announced Monday that the U.S. is lifting some Trump-era restrictions on Cuba. The changes include expanding flights to the island and lifting restrictions on remittances sent to people there.

Senior U.S. officials told WLRN that loosening some restrictions on engagement with Cuba are meant to help relieve the economic suffering on the island.

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It's also partly intended to help deter a record wave of Cuban immigration to the U.S.

Supporters of Trump’s policy say it'll simply encourage tourism that aids the repressive regime.

WLRN's Americas editor Tim Padgett answered some questions about the policy shift:

This conversations was edited lightly for clarity.

President Biden is rolling back some of his predecessor's sanctions on Cuba. What does this change mean for families who live in the U.S. and travel to Cuba or vice versa?

Padgett: Well, mainly it means they'll be able to send more money and travel more to Cuba. And that's one of the big things the Biden administration wants to facilitate right now, because the economy is in such a wrecked shape in Cuba.

And that's what's causing this record wave of Cuban migrants coming both here by boat and arriving at the U.S. southern border on land.

These policy changes would also restart the Family Reunification Parole Program. Can you talk about what the program is and the significance of bringing this back?

Padgett: The Cuba Family Reunification is a program the U.S. government started about 15 years ago. It allows the relatives and family members of Cuban Americans here who are back on the island get around certain visa requirements or actually bypass certain visa requirements so that they can immediately join their citizen family members in the United States.

How would this impact the record wave of immigration that the U.S. has been seeing?

Padgett: What it would mainly do is facilitate. This program has been shut down for the past few years and that has cut off what had been a real flow for Cuban migrants into the U.S. It'll facilitate that flow, again, of Cuban migrants coming here and relocating with their families. And that, you know, the Biden administration hopes will relieve some of that economic pressure on the island and the people there.

Is the restricted limit on remittances — the money that is sent to family members on the island — also lifted with this policy change?

Not completely lifted, but they do want to lift, let's say, the ceiling.

Before that, you know, the Trump administration had imposed about $1,000 per quarter on Cubans here to send back to their families. I think the Biden administration wants to significantly lift that ceiling, take it more back to where it was under the Obama administration, which was more or less unlimited. And they just feel that that's a way to get more cash into the Cuban people's hands so that they can ease the economic suffering that's going on on the island right now — resulting in all that record immigration.

What does this mean for Cubans on the island? How can this change conditions for people who receive these remittances?

It'll just get more cash into their hands that they can use to buy what scarce food there is.

One of the interesting things that administration officials told WLRN Monday night was that they also want to create a remittances system that is more beneficial to Afro Cubans. They pointed out that only 1 in 6 Afro Cubans on the island actually receive any kind of remittances from the United States. So much of that goes to white Cuban families.

So they really feel that that has got to be an objective of this new remittances policy — to help Afro Cubans who have never really benefited from from that before.

What else changes now with this policy shift by the Biden administration?

They are going to resume flights to cities other than Havana. One of President Trump's measures was to restrict flights from the United States only to Havana and not to any of the cities in the interior. That imposed quite a hardship on a lot of families who have relatives and friends in the interior of Cuba. Because once you get to Havana, getting around the rest of the island can be pretty onerous. So that, I think, will be welcomed by families here.

We're also going to see the U.S. embassy in Havana, which is effectively been shut down for the past five years or so, get visa processing ramped back up. And that should also help ease this immigration backlog that we have coming from Cuba.

President Biden also wants to allow, again, U.S. group people to people exchange travel, not individual, for educational purposes and things of that nature.

The other big thing that the Biden administration wants to do is ramp up aid to Cuba's fledgling private entrepreneurs. They feel that's a very important part, if not the most important part right now, of U.S. engagement with Cuba and making Cubans more independent from this repressive communist regime.

When do these changes go into effect?

More or less, immediately. Ramping up immigrant visa processing, for example, in the embassies should be up by the end of this month. And this summer, I think Americans will be able to avail themselves of these changes.

These policy changes shift a lot of rules, but some limitations will still remain. Which rules will not change?

President Biden has made it clear that he also does not want any of that remittance cash that is sent from the U.S. to Cuba to go through the military led agency that handles that kind of money transfer in Cuba. It's named Fincimex.

The U.S. policy right now, I think, under both Democratic and Republican parties, is to not deal directly at all with the Cuban military, which it sees as the repressive arm of the Cuban regime.

And so that's going to be a challenge for the Biden administration to find out how to make this new remittance policy work, but, at the same time, somehow circumventing this military-led agency that processes money sent into Cuba and takes a big cut of it.

The other thing that hasn't changed is that Biden will not be allowing individual people to people travel exchange into Cuba because opponents of engagement with the island, Republicans and other hard line Cuban exiles, what they oppose about that mostly is that it just seems to encourage tourism rather than a purposeful people to people exchange. And tourism is seen as something that just gives money straight to the Cuban regime's coffers.

Katie Lepri Cohen is WLRN's engagement editor. Her work involves distributing and amplifying WLRN's journalism on social media, managing WLRN's social accounts, writing and editing newsletters, and leading audience-listening efforts. Reach out via email at klcohen@wlrnnews.org.
Sherrilyn Cabrera is WLRN's PM newscast and digital producer.
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