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Cubans cheer Biden move to ease restrictions, U.S. reaction muted

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HAVANA/MIAMI — Cubans in Havana on Tuesday celebrated the Biden administration’s decision to ease Trump-era restrictions on remittances and travel to the island, a crack in the door that comes as its government wrestles with economic crisis and a mass exodus of its citizens to the United States.

The measures, announced on Monday, mark the most significant changes in U.S. policy to Cuba since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, but stop well short of the historic rapprochement under former President Barack Obama.

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But among Cubans on the island desperate to reunite with loved ones in the United States, the announcement that the U.S. would restart a visa program aimed at bringing together families was hailed as a blessing.

“This is the moment we have been waiting for,” said Elba Castillo, a 29-year old mother who said she has been waiting four years to bring her 2-year old daughter Isabella to the United States to live with her father.

“It has been a long wait, but hopefully this year…our dream will come true.”

The Biden administration on Monday promised to sharply ramp up consular services in the country amid a mass Cubans that have shown up at the U.S. southern border in numbers rivaling the 1980 Mariel boatlift. The United States said it would also reinstate group educational travel to Cuba and lift a cap on remittances.

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U.S. officials did not elaborate on the new programs but said regulations would be issued shortly.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said following the Monday announcement that the United States should have taken further steps to knock back its Cold War-era embargo, calling Biden’s measures “a limited step in the right direction.”

Tensions between long-time rivals Cuba and the United States flared again last year following Cuba’s crackdown on protesters who took to the streets on July 11 for anti-government rallies believed to be the largest since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Ten Republican lawmakers, including Cuba hardliner Florida Senator Marco Rubio, late on Monday said the Biden administration had turned its back on those who protested last July.

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“The Biden Administration’s repeated appeasement to the Cuban dictatorship is a betrayal of…the longsuffering Cuban people who are struggling for a genuine democratic transition,” the lawmakers wrote in a joint statement.

Cuba charged more than 700 people with crimes in connection with the July demonstrations and many are now serving jail sentences. Officials in Cuba have said those trials were conducted fairly and according to Cuban law.

The Biden administration has finally taken “a sensible and sane policy approach” to Cuba, said Peter Kornbluh, an expert on U.S.-Cuba relations and a senior analyst at the National Security Archive.

“By restoring at least a few of the Obama-era initiatives on travel, migration and remittances, President Biden is acknowledging the value of positive engagement instead of punitive estrangement to advance U.S. interests and the interests of the Cuban people.”

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MIAMI REACTIONS

At Miami’s Versailles restaurant, a popular gathering point for the Cuban-American community, just two people stood outside on Tuesday morning. Both held signs calling Biden a “traitor.”

Cuban people are suffering from tyranny, said 57-year-old Cuban exile Osvaldo Hernandez. “If you give more oxygen to the tyranny, they continue to give you more repression.”

Val Demings, a Democratic U.S. Representative who is running for one of the state’s Senate seats against Republican incumbent Rubio, said the U.S. should make Cuba “pay for its human rights abuses,” but added she was “encouraged by policies that reunite families and raise the cap on family remittances.”

Elsewhere, on talk radio and morning television, the response from Miami was muted compared with years past.

Just hours before the announced policy changes Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Havana shared a Spanish-language post on Twitter with the definition of the English phrase “to bury the hatchet,” part of an occasional series of posts aimed at imparting English lessons to Spanish-speakers.

“It means to end an argument and become friends again,” it said. (Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Nelson Acosta in Havana, Brian Ellsworth in Miami, Matt Spetalnick and Patricia Zengerle in Washingston, D.C., writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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