HAVANA Steps by U.S. President Barack Obama to relax restrictions on Cuba are not a major change in policy, but do mark a defeat for those who want a hard line on the island's leadership, a Cuban government website said.
Obama issued an executive order on Friday loosening limits on U.S. travel and money remittances to the communist-led Caribbean nation, extending his efforts to reach out to its people.
In the first reaction from Cuba's government, the website www.cubadebate.cu said the move showed many people in the United States favour a softening of Washington's decades-old trade embargo and policy of isolation toward the island.
It called the easing of restrictions a blow for the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Cuban-born Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
"The decision is the first defeat for Ros-Lehtinen, who assumed her post in Congress promising to harden policies against the island," the website said in an article posted late on Friday.
Cubadebate is often used by Cuba's former president Fidel Castro to publish editorial columns.
"While the measures leave the blockade intact and do not substantially change Washington's policies, they do reflect a consensus among wide sectors of the North American people in favour of a change in policy," the website said.
On Friday, Ros-Lehtinen condemned the easing of regulations, saying the move will "not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them."
The measures restore rules in place before the Bush administration and stop short of lifting a ban on tourist travel by Americans to the island of 11 million people.
The White House says the steps are aimed at developing "people-to-people" contacts by allowing more travel for college professors and students, artists and church groups. The regulatory changes also allow all U.S. international airports to apply to service licensed charter flights to Cuba.
In addition, they allow any U.S. person to send remittances (up to $500 a quarter) to non-family members in Cuba to support private economic activity, with the limitation that they cannot go to senior Cuban government officials or top members of the ruling Communist Party. (Reporting by Nelson Acosta, writing by Frank Jack Daniel, editing by Anthony Boadle)