U.S. President Barack Obama has loosened travel restrictions on Cuba to allow religious groups and students to travel to the communist country.
The White House said Friday the measures are aimed at developing "people to people" contacts through more academic, cultural and religious exchanges. It says the looser restrictions are designed to support civil society in Cuba, enhance the free flow of information to, from and among the Cuban people and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities.
Additionally, the White House says the changes allow any American to send as much as $500 every three months to Cuban citizens who are not part of the government or Communist Party.
Also, more U.S. international airports will be allowed to offer charter service to the Caribbean nation. Currently, only airports in Los Angeles, Miami and New York can offer authorized charters to the island.
U.S. Republican representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American, opposes the changes to the Cuba regulations, which are scheduled to take effect in two weeks. Ros-Lehtinen said that loosening the restrictions will neither help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba nor aid in ushering in respect for human rights. The congresswoman said the changes will not help the Cuban people free themselves from what she called the "tyranny" that engulfs them. Ros-Lehtinen chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
There was no immediate comment from Cuban government officials in Havana regarding the announced changes.
In 2009, President Obama eased restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to family to Cuba, but he kept the long-standing U.S. embargo in place. He has said it is up to Cuba to take the next step.
The United States and Cuba do not have formal diplomatic relations. They have interests sections that are technically part of the Swiss embassies in each other's capitals.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.