* Religious, academic exchanges would be easier
* Policy would revert to more relaxed Clinton years
By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Aug 17 (Reuters) - The Obama administration is getting ready to relax travel restrictions to Cuba for some Americans, without lifting the trade embargo and a ban on U.S. tourism to the island, a congressional aide said on Tuesday.
The small steps would make it easier for groups of Americans to once again go to the Communist island as part of academic, cultural or religious exchanges, as thousands of them did during the Clinton administration, the aide told Reuters.
Officials are trying to finish regulations so the changes can be announced before Congress returns in mid-September — well before Nov. 2 midterm elections, said the aide who was briefed on the plans but asked not to be named.
Some Cuban-American lawmakers are adamantly opposed to improving U.S. ties with Communist Cuba, which have been in the diplomatic deep freeze most of the time since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. He has been succeeded as president by his brother Raul, who has agreed to free some political prisoners.
Other U.S. lawmakers, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, have urged the U.S. government to open up more to Cuba. Several bills in Congress would promote more trade and travel there.
Restrictions on money transfers may also be eased, making it easier for Americans to donate cash to Cuban organizations such as churches or community groups, the aide said.
U.S. sanctions against Cuba are aimed at encouraging democratic reform in the one-party state. Critics of the policy say they have failed to do so in almost 50 years in effect.
President Barack Obama has said he wants to “recast” ties with Cuba, and last year renewed outreach efforts to the island. He eased limits on travel by separated family members and cash remittances by Cuban-Americans to their relatives.
U.S. advocates for better ties with Cuba, which include business and pro-democracy groups, are expecting the Obama administration to go further now, especially in the wake of Cuba’s recent decision to free 52 jailed dissidents.
“There will be a huge emphasis on people-to-people travel. That is (the Obama administration’s) whole mantra. That’s what they’re talking about,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of Center for Democracy in the Americas, a non-profit group in Washington that opposes sanctions against Cuba.
Cuba plans to drill for oil in its Gulf of Mexico waters and U.S. companies would be left out if deposits are found and the trade embargo is not lifted, she said. [ID:nN17125278]
Jake Colvin, vice president at the National Foreign Trade Council, said the new policy could possibly increase the number of airports from which U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba.
White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said there was nothing new to announce on Cuba policy, “but the president is going to continue to do things that are in the best interest of the United States and that help to create a more democratic environment and expand freedoms for the Cuban people.”
Obama will visit Miami, the heart of the Cuban exile community in the United States, on Wednesday for a political fund-raiser.
Under the expected changes, the law banning U.S. travel to Cuba would not be scrapped, but more licenses for exceptions to this ban would be issued on a case-by-case basis to groups of Americans by the U.S. Treasury Department, the aide said.
This was common under President Bill Clinton, but his successor President George W. Bush reversed the policy and such group travel requests were routinely denied. (Additional reporting by Doug Palmer, Patricia Zengerle and David Alexander, editing by Anthony Boadle)