WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is allowing Americans to make unlimited trips and money transfers to family in Cuba and easing other restrictions Monday to usher in a new era of openness toward the island nation ruled by communists for 50 years.
The White House made the formal announcement during presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs' daily briefing with reporters — in both English and Spanish.
"The president would like to see greater freedom for the Cuban people. There are actions that he can and has taken today to open up the flow of information to provide some important steps to help that," Gibbs said.
But Gibbs said Obama is only one part of the equation, suggesting that Cuba must do more as well.
"There are some steps that the Cuban government can and must take," Gibbs said.
With the changes, Obama aims to lessen Cubans' dependence on the Castro regime, hoping that will lead them to demand progress on political freedoms, the spokesman said. About 1.5 million Americans have relatives on the island nation that turned to communist rule in 1959 when Fidel Castro seized control.
Obama had promised to take these steps as a presidential candidate. It has been known for over a week that he would announce them ahead of his attendance this weekend at a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
"There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans," Obama said in a campaign speech last May in Miami, the heart of the Cuban-American community. "It's time to let Cuban Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It's time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime."
Other steps taken Monday include expanding the things allowed in gift parcels sent to Cuba, such as clothes, personal hygiene items, seeds, fishing gear and other personal necessities.
The administration also will begin issuing licenses to allow telecommunications and other companies to provide cell and television services to people on the island, and to allow family members to pay for relatives on Cuba to get those services.
Last May, President George W. Bush announced a new policy that people living in the United States could include cell phones in gift parcels sent to Cubans. At the time, Bush aides said that U.S. residents could pay for the cell service attached to phones they send.
However, though American cell phones with service contracts from the U.S. work on some parts of the island, service is not always reliable and depends on the phones' specifications.
Sending money to senior government officials and Communist Party members remains prohibited under Obama's new policy. Restrictions imposed by the Bush administration had limited Cuban travel by Americans to just two weeks every three years. Visits also were confined to immediate family members.
Francisco Hernandez, head of the exile group the Cuban American National Foundation, was once a staunch supporter of travel restrictions but supported Obama's announcement.
It will help Cubans become more independent of the state "not only in economic terms but in terms of information, and contacts with the outside world," said Hernandez, who was imprisoned by the Cuban government for nearly two years after participating in the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Miami travel agent Tesie Aral said her phone has been ringing nonstop in anticipation of the announcement, with a tenfold increase last Friday alone.
"People were already planning to travel more based on their ability to go every 12 months," said Aral, owner of ABC Charters. "Whether they can travel more frequently than that depends on the economy."
Also in that Miami speech nearly a year ago, Obama promised to depart from what he said had been the path of previous politicians on Cuba policy — "they come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington, and nothing changes in Cuba."
"Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy," he said then. "This is the terrible and tragic status quo that we have known for half a century — of elections that are anything but free or fair; of dissidents locked away in dark prison cells for the crime of speaking the truth. I won't stand for this injustice, you won't stand for this injustice, and together we will stand up for freedom in Cuba."
He also promised to engage in direct diplomacy with Cuba, "without preconditions" but with "careful preparation" and "a clear agenda."
Some U.S. lawmakers, backed by business and farm groups seeing new opportunities in Cuba, are advocating wider revisions in the trade and travel bans, with legislation in the pipeline to allow all Americans -- not just relatives -- to visit the island nation.
But officials said that Obama is keeping the decades-old U.S. trade embargo, arguing that that policy provides leverage to pressure the regime to free all political prisoners as one step toward normalized relations with the U.S.