The White House said Friday that the changes would allow travel to Cuba
by academic, religious and cultural groups. But restrictions remain in place on tourist travel to the island. The president also expanded the number of airports that can serve the Cuban market. Most travel to Cuba from the United States originates in Miami and New York.
The administration had been expected to make the changes months ago but did not want to announce them before the mid-term elections and during a time when American Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was detained in Havana
, the New York Times reported.
The new rules, which end restrictions put in place by President George W. Bush, will also allow Americans to send money to Cubans, except for members of the Castro government and the Communist Party.
"This is an important step forward for our Cuba policy," Sarah Stephens, director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, said in a statement. "At a time when Cubans are changing their system in fundamental ways, it is a good idea to have greater engagement, more Americans traveling to Cuba, and more opportunities to learn from each other as every day Cubans reshape their lives and their country. We will continue to press for the freedom to travel to Cuba for all Americans."
The White House, which apparently wanted little fanfare, announced the new rules late on Friday afternoon when many members of Congress had left Washington for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
But opponents of travel to Cuba immediately spoke out against Obama's executive order.
"Loosening these regulations will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who is the new chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Cuban-born and an anti-Castro hardliner, Ros-Lehtinen is expected to be an influential voice as her panel considers comprehensive legislation to do away with the travel ban. Separately, newly elected Sen. Marco Rubio, also a Florida Republican and the child of Cuban exiles, opposed the change in the travel rules.
Rules explaining the new policy will be issued in weeks.