U.S. President Barack Obama is making it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel and send remittances to relatives in Cuba. Monday's announcement came just days before a summit of hemispheric leaders in Trinidad and Tobago.
The move does not lift the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. But it does provide an opening.
The estimated 1.5 million Americans with family in Cuba will now be freer to visit and send financial help to their relatives.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says all restrictions on travel and remittances are being lifted. At the same time, the Obama administration is authorizing greater telecommunications links to Cuba and expanding the list of humanitarian items that can be sent in gift packages to Cuba.
Gibbs says all of these steps are designed to help bring about the day the Cuban people can freely determine their nation's future. "All who embrace core democratic values long for a Cuba that respects the basic human, political and economic rights of all of its citizens. President Obama believes the measure he has taken today will help make that goal a reality," she said.
But Gibbs cautions that the actions taken by the president alone will not be sufficient. He says Cuba's leaders must take steps too. "There are actions that he [i.e., President Obama] can and has taken today to open up the flow of information, provide some important steps to help that. But he is not the only person in this equation," she said.
The move fulfills one of the president's campaign promises and comes ahead of this weekend's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
Central and South American leaders who will attend the summit have been urging the United States to adopt a more open policy toward Cuba.
President Obama has already indicated he would be willing to engage Cuba in a well-prepared diplomatic dialogue.
But Monday's announcement at the White House made no mention of overtures to officials in Havana. Instead, the focus was on people-to-people exchanges -- encouraging family ties, and clearing the way for U.S. telecommunication firms and satellite radio and television services to seek access to the Cuban market.
Critics of the move -- including several Cuban-Americans in Congress -- warned that the money sent back to Cuba would ultimately line the pockets of Cuba's communist officials.
Dan Restrepo, senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the White House National Security Council, told reporters that President Obama is calling on Havana to stop adding fees to the remittances.
"We are getting ourselves out and the Cuban government should get itself out of the way and allow Cuban families to support Cuban families," he said.
In a break with usual White House practice, the official announcement on Cuba was delivered in two languages: Gibbs spoke in English and Restrepo in Spanish.
Restrepo, who has family ties to Colombia, also answered questions in Spanish from regional reporters, marking the first time in recent memory that a dual language press briefing was held at the White House.