Decision on expanding U.S. travel to Cuba could come by end of the week

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The Associated Press reports that the recent release of political prisoners in Cuba might be the trigger for the loosening of restrictions.

Speaking privately, two administration officials and a congressional source said support for the changes increased after Cuba began the release of political prisoners in July, which was brokered by the Catholic church.

Some supporters of easing the embargo say Raul Castro, who assumed power from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, may be trying to find a way to reduce state control of society without losing control, much like the Chinese communist party in the 1980s.

Back in the spring, two former adversaries — Al Fox with the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy and Steve Michelini from the World Trade Center, a global trade organization lobbied the entire Tampa City Council to travel to Cuba to establish business relationships, a proposal that was rejected by Council Chair Thomas Scott.

President Barack Obama has said in the past that he wants to reach out to Cuba and promote democracy there by easing travel and financial restrictions. But he has also said there must be political or economic reforms before the U.S. takes further steps to ease Cuba's isolation.

U.S. and congressional officials said on Tuesday that the Obama administration is considering easing travel restrictions to Cuba.

The New York Times originally reported on Tuesday that unidentified  officials,

said it was meant to loosen restrictions on academic, religious and cultural groups that were adopted under President George W. Bush and return to the “people to people” policies followed under President Bill Clinton.

The story intimated that politics, which always is at play when it comes to the U.S. and Cuba, is certainly part of the equation, but that the administration doesn't think it will be negative, save from some criticism from New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez and no doubt parts of the South Florida Cuban exile community.

“They have made the calculation that if you put a smarter Cuba policy on the table, it will not harm us in the election cycle,” said one Democratic Congressional aide who has been working with the administration on the policy. “That, I think, is what animates this.”

The Obama administration is also planning to allow flights to Cuba from more cities than the three — Miami, New York and Los Angeles — currently permitted — and the big hope locally is that Tampa will be one of those cities.

In recent months, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has written a letter to Obama asking for that to happen.

Tampa businessman and activist Jason Busto, who also publishes the online publication Cuba Standard, said that as a Tampa native he hopes "we get some non-stop flights and that our port authority board will be more open-minded about meeting with their counterparts in Cuba now."

Busto, like many others in this country, thinks the 50-year embargo has long stopped being effective, and hopes it ends sooner rather than later.  "Once the US ends the embargo, I hope that the re-engagement it secures will help create jobs in Tampa Bay and in Cuba, particularly in the construction businesses of which so many find themselves languishing today," he says.

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