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After a surprise debate and party infighting, the Senate passed an appropriations bill on Tuesday that will ease some of the United States' sanctions against Cuba. President Obama then signed it into law.
The policy changes, tucked inside a $410 billion omnibus spending bill, essentially lift the strict restrictions passed in 2004 by the Bush administration by defunding the agencies that would normally enforce the law.
The changes allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island once a year with no time limits (as opposed to once every three years), and also broadens the definition of family to include aunts, uncles and cousins.
The policy changes also make it easier for businessmen to sell agricultural and medical goods in Cuba by offering a general travel license that does not require individual permission.
The road to President Obama's desk has been a bumpy ride for the bill.
After passing a House vote on February 25 by a margin of 245-178, the government appropriations bill that would ensure 12 Cabinet departments could continue to function appeared primed to pass through the Senate.
However, a slew of controversial earmarks and policy changes had been attached to the bill, and many Senators took exception.
In particular, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), both of Cuban descent, vowed to block the bill.
This left Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) no choice but to delay the final vote while he tried to wrangle additional support to reach the magic number of 60 votes, which would trump attempts to filibuster the bill.
To gain the support of the dissenting senators, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote a letter that assured the travel licenses would be limited to "only a narrow class of businesses."
The bill then cleared the Senate by a margin of 62-35.
Human rights groups and Cuban sympathizers hailed the bill as a positive step towards overturning the U.S.-Cuban policy.
In a news release, José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said "Cutting off funding for these cruel restrictions is a step in the right direction. But it's hardly permanent. President Obama should follow up by issuing an executive order to eliminate all restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans."
The recent events in Washington stand as a litmus test for the potential challenges Obama may face should he move to further ease Cuba travel and trade restrictions.
During his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to reexamine U.S. foreign policy to Cuba.
According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, some feel he could announce big revisions sooner than later, as April's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago nears.
"There is a strong likelihood that Obama will announce policy changes prior to the summit," said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programmes at the Inter-American Dialogue and author of The Cuba Wars in the article. "Loosening travel restrictions would be the easy thing to do and defuse tensions at the summit."
For more, see James Suckling's blog.
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