President Barack Obama directed his government on Friday to loosen more U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba, a further step in his efforts to reach out to the people of the communist-ruled country.
The latest measures, which stop short of lifting a ban on tourist travel to the island by Americans, are aimed at developing "people-to-people" contacts through more academic, cultural and religious exchanges.
"These measures 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," the White House said in a statement.
The measures had been widely expected last year, following an initial relaxation of the U.S. trade embargo by Obama in 2009, when curbs on remittances and travel by Cuban-Americans visiting family members on the island were eased.
But further easing was delayed last year by what analysts said were Obama administration concerns that announcing the measures before last November's U.S. congressional elections could damage Democratic candidates in Florida, where the Cuban American vote is especially powerful.
Hard-line Cuban exiles oppose any relaxation of the embargo against Cuba, saying such measures merely help the Cuban leadership to sustain one-party Communist rule over the island.
But over the years, more moderate Cuban exiles have argued that greater outreach and contact with Cuba and its people by Americans can help to foster political change on the Caribbean island -- more so than a policy of sanctions and exclusion.
In Havana, Cuban government officials were not immediately available for reaction.