The White House on Monday announced major reversals of Trump administration policies toward Cuba by expanding flights into the country and reestablishing a family reunification program that had been dormant for years.
The Biden administration announced it would restore flights to cities other than Havana and allow for group travel that is deemed for educational or professional exchanges.
Current restrictions limit U.S. flights to Havana, making travel difficult for Cuban Americans hoping to visit relatives on the island, which has been increasingly isolated and facing economic ruin.
The administration is also relaunching the Cuban Family Reunification Program, which allows eligible U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for parole for their family members in Cuba. If approved, those family members can come to the U.S. in an expedited fashion.
The State Department further announced it would support efforts to boost the Cuban private sector by supporting more access to U.S. internet services, which are largely restricted within Cuba.
The administration is also lifting the family remittance cap of $1,000 per quarter in an attempt to increase financial support for families with some members living in the U.S. and others still in Cuba.
The changes announced Monday come after years of stricter policies put in place by the Trump administration, which itself marked a shift from a more open policy instituted by the Obama administration.
The Biden administration framed the new policies as an effort to engage with the Cuban people and “support Cubans’ aspirations for freedom and for greater economic opportunities so that they can lead successful lives at home.”
While restarting the family reunification program will likely be popular among lawmakers who have pushed for it, some of the other changes drew immediate bipartisan skepticism from members of Congress.
“I am dismayed to learn the Biden administration will begin authorizing group travel to Cuba through visits akin to tourism,” Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “To be clear, those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial.
“For decades, the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed,” he continued. “For years, the United States foolishly eased travel restrictions arguing millions of American dollars would bring about freedom and nothing changed. And as I warned then, the regime ultimately laughed off any promises of loosening its iron grip on the Cuban people and we ended up helping fund the machinery behind their continued oppression.”
A senior administration official, asked about Menendez’s concerns about travel, said the Treasury Department has the authority to audit groups that organize travel to Cuba to ensure it is being done in accordance with U.S. law. The official further argued engagement between the U.S. and Cubans will allow for the spread of democratic values.
Multiple lawmakers raised concerns that the more open approach to Cuba was rewarding a brutal dictatorship, which has been accused of numerous human rights violations.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the announcement “the first steps back to the failed Obama policies on Cuba.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who previously served as governor of Florida, said he would place a hold on relevant nominees in the Senate until the administration’s new Cuba policies are reversed.
“Biden can frame this however he wants, but this is the truth: this is nothing but an idiotic attempt to return to Obama’s failed appeasement policies and clear sign of support for the evil regime,” Scott said in a blistering statement.
The Biden administration has been reviewing U.S. policy toward Cuba for nearly a year after the Trump administration imposed a pressure campaign that restricted travel, isolated the Cuban government and imposed numerous sanctions on the island nation.
Hundreds of protesters spilled into the streets of Cuba in July in demonstrations that went viral on social media as residents pushed back on dire economic conditions and food shortages.
Updated at 7:38 p.m.