Obama keeps his election pledge to Cuban Americans

President to let US citizens visit families and transfer money to island

The permafrost that has defined relations between the US and Cuba for generations is set to thaw a little after the Obama administration said it would allow Cuban-Americans to travel directly to the island, and to phone and send money back home.

The policy change, which reflects new leadership in both countries and the fading memories of the Cold War, was confirmed at a bilingual press conference held at the White House yesterday.

The package of measures is designed to give Cuban people "more independence from the regime", according to Barack Obama's official spokesman, Robert Gibbs. "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."

Cuban-Americans will be allowed to make unlimited trips to the Caribbean island to visit their families, and the White House is also examining licensing regular scheduled flights. There will be no limit on the value of gifts and cash that can be sent home, and US telephone companies will also be granted permission to apply for telecoms licenses on the island.

There will not, however, be an end to the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba's Communist regime. Mr Obama hopes that more limited change will spur democratic reforms in the island under Raul Castro, who assumed the presidency from his brother Fidel Castro last year.

On the campaign trail in May last year, Mr Obama signalled that his government would take a less hardline approach to Cuba. "There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans," he said in Miami, Florida – the heart of the Cuban-American community. "It is time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It is time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime."

The moves to fulfil that promise were announced in both English and Spanish at the White House yesterday, before the President attends a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago at the weekend. Latin-American countries have persistently pressed the US to loosen its embargo on Cuba.

Powerful voices on Capitol Hill and in the Cuban-American community have opposed any change, however, saying the US should stand firm in the face of human rights abuses in Cuba.

Francisco Hernandez, head of the Cuban-American National Foundation for exiled Cubans, was once a staunch supporter of travel restrictions but supported yesterday's announcement, saying that he hoped it would inspire both sides to reconsider long-held positions.

It would 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 Mr Hernandez, who was imprisoned by the Cuban government for nearly two years after participating in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.A thaw in realtions has been expected since members of the US Congressional Black Caucus held meetings last week with both Raul Castro and his brother. On their return to Washington, members suggested that both men had displayed unexpected warmth and curiosity about President Obama and his intentions.