US ready to lift flight ban to Cuba

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The Independent Online
THE UNITED STATES is about to announce a significant relaxation of policy towards Cuba, to include the resumption of direct flights between the two countries. The economic embargo, however, will remain in place. The policy shift, which follows the Pope's visit to Cuba in January, is expected to be announced by President Bill Clinton today, shortly before he sets off on a 12-day tour of Africa.

The decision reportedly proceeded from the leeway that was granted to opponents of Fidel Castro's communist regime during and since the Pope's visit. "The decision is based on the conclusion that Pope John Paul II's visit created space for people to act in contravention to Castro," a senior US official said.

He stressed that this was a unilateral move by Washington, and not any reward or inducement for Cuba. "This is not a reciprocal step," he said, "or based on the expectation that Castro will change."

As well as allowing direct flights to resume, the US will ease restrictions on the sale of medicines to humanitarian organisations working in Cuba and allow Cuban exiles in the US to remit money to relatives on the island, up to an annual sum of $1,200 (pounds 900).

The changes on flights and remittances reverse sanctions put in place by Washington two years ago after Cuba shot down two planes flown as a protest by anti-Castro exiles. Increasing medical supplies is a response to specific criticisms around the time of the Pope's visit.

Together, however, the measures send a signal that the US may no longer be moving towards abandoning its ultra-hardline policy of isolating Cuba. Officials said they were the result of "broad-ranging consultations" designed to explore ways of helping "the Cuban people without re- energising the Cuban government". The policy change also offers hope to the Europeans and Canadians that Washington might not apply the Helms- Burton legislation that would punish representatives of third countries and foreign companies that do business in Cuba.

The Helms-Burton law is said not to be affected - it would be politically difficult for the administration to reverse by fiat a law passed by Congress - but the general easing of policy suggests that the administration could well extend its decision not to enforce the law for the time being.