The White House announced last night a series of changes to travel and remittance policies with Cuba, that will allow more visitation and transfer of funds to the island 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

The changes fall under three basic categories:

1) Purposeful travel: This enables more travel for religious, educational, cultural and journalistic purposes. The goal is “to enhance contact with the Cuban people and support civil society through purposeful travel.” For the first time, students can travel to Cuba to complete course work and even pursue “educational exchanges” outside of academic study. Colleges and universities can now cosponsor seminars, conferences and workshops in Cuba with local organizations. And more cultural or religious exchanges can occur.

2) Non-family remittances: Any citizen can now send remittances up to $500 per quarter ($2,000 per year) to any Cuban except for senior government officials or senior members of the Cuban Communist Party. Religious institutions in Cuba can accept remittances as well.

3) Airports: All US airports with customs and immigration facilities are now eligible to provide charter flights to Cuba. There’s an application process they would have to go through to obtain the license.

This is how the White House release describes the changes:

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 President believes these actions, combined with the continuation of the embargo, are important steps in reaching the widely shared goal of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens. These steps build upon the President’s April 2009 actions to help reunite divided Cuban families; to facilitate greater telecommunications with the Cuban people; and to increase humanitarian flows to Cuba.

The travel ban and the embargo on Cuba are some of the final relics from the Cold War, and the best solution would be to eliminate them entirely. Perhaps the US can introduce enough of a taste of freedom through cultural, educational and religious exchange, along with the remittances, to force the regime to loosen its control and end repression. But that appears to be happening organically. These are baby steps, but unlike the previous Administration, at least they’re moving in the right direction. In fact, these restrictions, says Sen. Bill Nelson, were originally put into place by the Bush Administration.

In the past 48 hours, the Obama Administration and its federal agencies have canceled the largest mountaintop removal project in the history of West Virginia, instituted these new rules for Cuba travel and remittances, changed the structure of the agencies governing offshore drilling to allow for more science-based regulatory oversight, and finally ended funding for the very silly “virtual fence” along the border, one of the biggest boondoggles in recent history. These are just data points, and I doubt I’d agree with every single solution made by every executive branch agency over the past couple days or weeks. What it does show is a willingness to use the power of the executive branch to push forward an agenda a bit more than in the past.