The Obama administration, in a test of the Castro regime's appetite for reform, is considering easing travel restrictions to Cuba, U.S. and congressional officials said Tuesday.
The move would leave intact the nearly 50-year-old embargo against the communist regime but would expand opportunities for American students, educators and researchers to visit Cuba, the officials said. The discussions to ease restrictions follow the release in July of the first batch of political prisoners Havana had pledged to free.
President Barack Obama has said that he wants to reach out to Cuba and promote democracy there by easing travel and financial restrictions. But he has also said there must be political or economic reforms before the U.S. takes further steps to ease Cuba's isolation.
A decision could be announced before the end of next week. However, the officials cautioned that political considerations could hold up a decision, possibly until after November's midterm congressional elections. They spoke on condition of anonymity because internal deliberations continue on the scope and scale of the changes.
Some in Congress have voiced opposition to a further easing in the restrictions, which Obama loosened last year to allow Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to relatives on the island. The new changes would extend some of those provisions to a broader group of Americans and could expand direct flights to Cuba, the officials said.
Details of the possible revisions were first reported Tuesday by The New York Times. But speculation about them has run rife in Washington since Havana began releasing the political prisoners last month.
The White House and State Department declined to comment Tuesday on specifics of the changes.
"The president is going to continue to do things that are in the best interest of the United States and that help to create a more democratic environment and expand freedoms for the Cuban people," deputy White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters.
Those comments were echoed almost word-for-word by State Department spokesman Mark Toner, who added: "We're looking at promoting measures that encourage the free flow of information and humanitarian items to the Cuban people."
Toner noted that the Obama administration had contacts with Cuba on issues like immigration, postal service between the two countries, and the Gulf oil spill.
Speaking privately, two administration officials and a congressional source said support for the changes increased after Cuba began the release of political prisoners in July, which was brokered by the Catholic church.
Some supporters of easing the embargo say Raul Castro, who assumed power from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, may be trying to find a way to reduce state control of society without losing control, much like the Chinese communist party in the 1980s.
But the Obama administration could find it difficult politically to broaden ties with Cuba. The White House is still appealing to Cuba for the release of a U.S. government contractor who was detained last year.
Any effort to ease the embargo against Cuba would be fiercely opposed by Republicans and Democrats, both on Capitol Hill and across the U.S., who warn that it would weaken attempts to promote a fundamental change in Havana.
A growing number of lawmakers in both parties see Cuba as a lucrative market for U.S. farm exports, and support dropping at least some restrictions on trade.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has said that loosening restrictions would reward a repressive government that has shown little interest in reform.
"Promoting travel and widespread remittances will give the regime a much-needed infusion of dollars that will only allow the Castro brothers to extend their reign of oppression and human rights violations," Menendez said in an Aug. 6 statement.
Mendendez' comments came in response to a mention of possible changes published in a Washington Post column.