President Clinton, responding to humanitarian concerns, is expected to reverse a 2-year-old ban on direct flights to Cuba and on cash being sent back to the island by U.S.-based exiles.
The proposal is drawing a mixed reaction, with strong opposition from Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and two Cuban-born Republican congressmen from Florida. Several Democratic lawmakers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce expressed support.A formal announcement was expected later Friday.
The moves were prompted in part by the January visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II, who told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright earlier this month of his concern about humanitarian conditions on the island.
As part of the package, Clinton is expected to take steps to end cumbersome procedures for the delivery of medicines to Cuba and also to endorse a legislative proposal to permit increased humanitarian relief to Cubans.
In an interview with CNN, Cuban President Fidel Castro called the reported measures "really positive and constructive."
He said they would "aid in creating a better climate of relations between the United States and Cuba," but added: "Now they must be studied completely, completely before giving a definitive opinion."
As for relations with the United States, he said, "We are confident that one day they will improve. . . . What depends on our part, we will do." But he said that stopped short of abandoning Cuba's single-party socialist system.
Castro resents Cuba being treated as a charity case and wants an end to the nearly 40-year U.S. embargo against the island so that normal trade can resume. Cuban officials say the embargo is primarily responsible for the country's poor economic conditions.
They also say food shortages last year partly were attributable to U.S. aerial spraying over Cuba of crop-killing insects. The United States said the allegation was baseless.
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition that they not be identified, said the measures are likely to have a beneficial impact on the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, which is responsible for distribution of humanitarian supplies from the United States.
As more and more relief supplies are delivered to the church, officials expect a corresponding increase in the number of Cubans who will look favorably on the church, now the only significant independent institution on the island.