WASHINGTON: The United States rolled out a sweeping set of measures Thursday to significantly ease the half-century-old embargo against Cuba, opening up the country to expanded travel, trade and financial activities.
Defying hardline critics in Congress, President Barack Obama made good on a commitment he made a month ago to begin loosening some U.S. economic sanctions against the communist-ruled island as part of an effort to end decades of hostility.
The Treasury and Commerce Departments issued a package of new rules that will allow U.S. exports of telecommunications, agricultural and construction equipment, permit expanded travel to Cuba and authorize some kinds of banking relations.
It was the first tangible U.S. step to implement the changes Obama pledged on Dec. 17 when he and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to restore diplomatic relations between the old Cold War foes.
"Today's announcement takes us one step closer to replacing out-of-date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people," U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a statement.
The new regulations, which take effect Friday, will allow Americans to travel to Cuba for any of a dozen specific reasons, including family visits, education and religion, without first obtaining a special license from the U.S. government as was previously the case.
Though general tourism will still be banned, those U.S. travelers who do visit will be allow bring home small amounts of the Cuban cigars that are highly rated by aficionados.
The revamped rules will also make it easier for U.S. companies to export mobile phone devices and software as well as to provide Internet services in Cuba. U.S. airlines will be permitted to expand flights to the Caribbean island.
In an expansion of remittances allowed, Americans will now be able to send up to $8,000 to Cuba a year, up from the $2,000 previously permitted, and bring $10,000 with them when they travel to the country. They will also be able to use credit and debit cards in Cuba.
In addition, there will be a change in the definition of "cash in advance" payment required by Cuban buyers, which could help a variety of business interests, most notably U.S. agriculture, in gaining greater access to Cuban markets.
The announcement was made after the Obama administration said Monday that Castro's government had fulfilled its promise to free 53 political prisoners as agreed with the U.S. government. It also comes a week before high-level U.S.-Cuba talks in Havana aimed at starting to normalize ties.
Obama's spokesman, Josh Earnest, called the steps a "significant step" in delivering on Obama's new direction on Cuba. In announcing the shift in December, the president said that decades of trying to force change in Cuba by isolating the island had not worked.
"We firmly believe that allowing increased travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba will allow the United States to better advance our interests and improve the lives of ordinary Cubans," he said.
But Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American and forceful critic of the policy shift, said it would hurt ordinary Cubans.
"This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against U.S. national interests in Latin America and beyond," he said in a statement.
While Obama is using executive powers to poke holes in trade barriers with Cuba, only Congress can lift the longstanding embargo. With Republicans controlling the Senate and the House, there is little chance of that happening any time soon.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will hold high-level negotiations in Havana on Jan. 21-22 aimed at starting the normalization process. The discussions will include efforts to reopen embassies in both countries.