Cuban President Fidel Castro (L) and his brother Raul, chat on December 23, 2003 in Havana, during a meeting of the Cuban Parliament. Raul Castro succeeded his brother Fidel Castro as the president of Cuba on February 24, 2008, in a historic power shift expected to keep Havana firmly on its communist path, officials said.

On January 14, the White House unveiled further liberalization of its Cuba policy. New changes alter rules to allow easier American citizen visits, permit non-family remittances (up to $500 per quarter), and broaden the number of U.S. airports able to send charter flights to Cuba. The measures, the White House trumpeted, “will increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities.”

Liberals proponents of enhanced Cuba ties have applauded the measure. The decision, however, is ill-timed and confusing and fails to impress the hard-line Castro regime.

It is ill-timed because it comes just as a Cuban Communist Party congress prepares to ratify an economic game plan that throws more than a million Cubans into the “private sector” while preserving the fundamentals of a command or planned economy. Cuba’s un-free economic model, Jose Azel of the University of Miami notes, reflects “the desire for control by the military and the Communist Party of every aspect of Cuban life” and an economic program that is antithetical to the individual liberty and empowerment necessary to bring about an economic renaissance. Non-family remittances will provide a modest lifeline that supports the objectives of the regime: a voiceless, powerless private sector that will not rock the Communist boat.

The decision is confusing because it undercuts recent attempts to pressure the Cuban regime to release U.S. citizen Alan Gross. Speaking in Santiago, Chile on January 13, Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Arturo Valenzuela said, “the United States finds it very difficult to advance on matters of common interest” with Cuba while President Raul Castro’s government continues to hold Gross, a U.S. government contractor. Gross was arrested in December 2009 and has spent a year in Cuban prison without charges. Havana claims that Gross is a spy but has made no attempt to prove the case. Before Valenzuela could return home, the White House announced the latest unilateral easing of travel restrictions, a blow to those ready to keep the Gross case at the center of the current debate on U.S.–Cuban relations.

Ileana Ros-Leithen (R–FL), chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, correctly summarized the Obama Administration’s errors:

Loosening these regulations will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba. …They certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them. … [They] undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime.

The Castro regime continued to take the Obama Administration to task for its failure to lift full travel restrictions and charged it with seeking “domination” and “destabilization” of Cuba. The Cuban Foreign Ministry went into rage mode when a visiting U.S. delegation present for immigration talks met with Cuban dissidents. It charged the U.S. with advancing a “policy of subversion and intervention” and supporting “internal counterrevolution.” So much for an improved climate in relations!

After two years, the valiant promises of candidate Obama regarding Cuba with his call for libertad [liberty] and a “road to freedom for all Cubans” that begins “with justice for Cuba’s political prisoners, the rights of free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly” leading to “elections that are free and fair” are largely overshadowed by more unilateral concessions to the Castro regime.