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Biden administration to lift some travel restrictions and remittances on Cubans

EMILY FENG, HOST:

President Biden is lifting some of the sanctions placed on Cuba during the Trump administration. The move is intended to ease an economic crisis in Cuba. And the situation there is certainly dire right now. Record numbers of Cubans are fleeing the island where inflation is high and food is scarce. We are joined now by NPR's Carrie Kahn, who just returned from Cuba and joins us now from Mexico City. Good afternoon, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good afternoon, Emily.

FENG: So, Carrie, which sanctions exactly are being eased? And will this make things easier for Cubans on the island?

KAHN: Travel sanctions are being eased. There will be more direct flights allowed from the U.S. to Cuba. The U.S. will restart what's called family reunification visa program, and that allows for up to 20,000 visas to be issued a year. And a $1,000 cap on money sent from the U.S. to individual Cubans is also being lifted. And those so-called remittances are just a lifeline to Cubans, and now they can get more money from relatives and friends abroad. It's tricky how that will work since the company that processes those remittances in Cuba is run by the military, and that company still remains on the U.S. sanction list. The administration says that these measures will help ease a very, very tough situation on the island. And it is very tough. Prices are just up for everything, and that is even if you can find food and medicine to buy.

FENG: And so how are people finding food in Cuba? You were just there last week, so what did you see?

KAHN: It is a daily struggle. Everywhere you go, there are lines. And I've been to Cuba for years now, and this is the worst I've ever seen it. You just see crowds gathering everywhere. They're always under a tree or in a small little piece of shade because it's just so hot in the Caribbean right now, and you know there must be a store nearby. People line up early in the morning, sometimes before dawn, and wait hours, and then they're not even sure they're going to get something. Here, I want you to listen to this man I met. He's 51-year-old William Sinero, and he was in a line in Havana where he had already been waiting 3 hours when I finally talked to him.

WILLIAM SINERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says, every day it's a new line, another line, another line, and every day it's for something different. Today he's waiting for soap and milk. Tomorrow he'll go, and maybe he'll get some cooking oil, the next day, chicken. He's a construction worker. But he says he's not working because there's no cement on the island, so he has time to wait in these lines. Cuba was closed for nearly two years under very strict COVID restrictions that just shut off tourists to the island, which is a vital cash source for the country. And the economy is just shattered in Cuba, and there's a scarcity of everything.

FENG: Then will these measures Biden took allow for more U.S. tourism to Cuba?

KAHN: Some of them will. Like I said, there will be more flights allowed by U.S. carriers. There have been very limited flights, and they're very expensive. And there's none to cities outside of Havana, so that's going to change. But Americans holding U.S. passports are still barred from traveling to Cuba. There's a few exceptions, like if you're a journalist - that's how I got in - or on an educational tour or these so-called people-to-people visits when you're going to deal directly with the Cuban people. The new measures will allow for more of those types of travel. But as I said, the COVID shutdown was devastating to the tourism industry, and many restaurants and small private hotels have shuttered. The government has this goal of attracting 2.5 million tourists this year, and that's going to be tough.

FENG: And just quickly - there's a long history of U.S. sanctions against Cuba, so why is the Biden administration doing this now?

KAHN: That's a good question. I'm not really sure about the timing. President Biden as a candidate had said he would loosen these sanctions slapped on Cuba from Trump because he said they were just hurting the Cuban people. It might be in the run-up to the Summit of the Americas, which is going to take place in the beginning of June in Los Angeles - that he's trying to create some goodwill. I'm not sure.

FENG: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Thank you, Carrie. We look forward to hearing more from your trip to Cuba in the coming weeks.

KAHN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.