WASHINGTON - The Biden administration announced Monday it will ease some travel restrictions to Cuba and restart a family reunification program as part of a series of measures aimed at supporting "Cubans' aspirations for freedom."
"We continue to call on the Cuban government to immediately release political prisoners, to respect the Cuban people's fundamental freedoms and to allow the Cuban people to determine their own futures," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
The State Department said it increase capacity for consular services, such as resuming limited immigrant visa processing in Havana. The administration will also expand authorized travel to Cuba, including authorizing scheduled and charter flights to locations beyond Havana.
In addition, group people-to-people travel and other group education travel will be reinstated. The State Department also said that it will remove the current limit on family remittances of $1,000 per quarter per sender-receiver pair. In addition, the administration will authorize donative remittances.
The policy changes come after a review that began soon after a series of widespread protests on the island last July.
Former President Donald Trump had increased sanctions against Cuba, including the cancellation of permits to send remittances and the punishment of oil tankers bound for the island.
These measures and the pandemic contributed to an economic crisis in Cuba, where people suffer from shortages of basic products, power outages and rationing.
The economic situation led thousands of people to the streets across Cuba on July 11, 2021 - the largest such protests in decades on the island. Many people were frustrated with shortages and low salaries, as well with the socialist government. Nongovernmental organizations have reported more than 1,400 arrests and 500 people sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for vandalism or sedition.
Some lawmakers were critical of the administration's announcement.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., whose parents are Cuban immigrants, criticized the administration for easing restrictions on travel to the country, saying that it sends "the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons."
Menendez said that increased group travel is "akin to tourism" and does not help the Cuban people.
"To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial," Menendez said in a statement. "For decades, the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed. For years, the United States foolishly eased travel restrictions arguing millions of American dollars would bring about freedom and nothing changed."
The New Jersey Democrat did praise the administration for restarting the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, saying it was "an overdue step to strengthen the ties between Cuban families on the island and in the United States."
Contributing: Associated Press
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden revises Cuba policies, reverses Trump travel restrictions