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Administration details eased travel, trade restrictions on Cuba

15 Jan

Americans can now visit Cuba with little resistance from the U.S. government as part of President Obama’s bid to normalize relations with the communist nation for the first time in a half century.

The eased travel restrictions come as part of sweeping regulations detailed Thursday by the White House, and just weeks after Obama announced an agreement to restore relations with Havana. The regulations, meant to relax travel and trade rules, begin to take effect Friiday.

“We’re trying to make it much more flexible for people to visit the islands,” a senior administration official told reporters. “Behind all of our actions was an effort to try to increase U.S. contact with the Cuban people, between our respective populations and respective citizens.”

Under the new policies, travelers who qualify under a dozen broad categories of authorized travel will be able to visit the country without applying for a license.

This will allow more Americans to travel to Cuba to visit family, conduct business, for journalism, government meetings, research, education, religious purposes, public performances, athletic competitions, and humanitarian projects, the officials said.

Americans will not be allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism, though it is unclear how the government will enforce these restrictions. To promote travel to Cuba, the Obama administration will allow U.S. airlines to fly there without obtaining special licenses.

The Obama administration is also taking steps to allow U.S. banking activity in Cuba.

Travelers visiting Cuba won’t be limited in how much money they can spend while on the island, and they’ll be allowed to use their U.S. credit and debit cards.

Travelers can also bring back up to $400 worth of goods, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco products — including previously banned Cuban rum and cigars.

The Obama administration will also encourage U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies to build infrastructure in Cuba to promote open communications for the citizens there.

The new regulations also remove restrictions on certain U.S. companies looking to do business on the island. U.S. insurers can now provide global health, life and travel insurance policies for those visiting Cuba, and technology firms can now sell consumer electronic devices like computers, mobile phones and televisions to the Cuban people.

U.S. telecommunications firms will also face fewer restrictions on the sale of equipment and services on the island, while banks will be permitted to open and maintain accounts with Cuban financial institutions.

Cubans living in the U.S. can now send $2,000 per quarter to family members on the island, although certain members of the Castro regime cannot receive the remittances. That’s a fourfold increase from current policy.

The U.S. is also lifting all restrictions on remittances for humanitarian projects, and Cuban-Americans traveling back to the island can bring up to $10,000 in cash with them. U.S. banks can also now facilitate the transfer of remittances without needing to apply for a specific license.

The administration is also authorizing financing projects for entrepreneurial and business training, and the State Department will create a list of certain independent Cuban entrepreneur-produced goods that will be eligible for commercial import to the United States.

And U.S. companies can export building materials, agricultural equipment and supplies for Cuban private-sector entrepreneurs. American journalists visiting Cuba can export items necessary for newsgathering, and academics can send items necessary for research. The administration will also permit sending items necessary for the environmental protection or enhancement of the island, including energy-efficient items.

The administration is also allowing transactions with Cuban diplomats residing in the United States, and giving its diplomats — and international organization workers — in Havana greater autonomy to spend money.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the changes will “empower the Cuban population to become less dependent upon the state-driven economy, and help facilitate our growing relationship with the Cuban people.”

“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,” Earnest said in a statement. “The policy of the past has not worked for over 50 years, and we believe that the best way to support our interests and our values is through openness rather than isolation.”

“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,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement.

“These changes will have a direct impact in further engaging and empowering the Cuban people, promoting positive change for Cuba’s citizens,” he added.

The announcement of the new regulations comes just days after Cuba released all of the 53 political prisoners it agreed to release as part of the deal announced by Obama last month to begin normalizing diplomatic relations. In addition to the political prisoners, Havana released Alan Gross, a U.S. aid worker who has been jailed after attempting to establish Internet service on the island, as well as a Cuban who was jailed for spying for the U.S.

Senior administration officials plan to travel to Cuba later this month to discuss additional migration issues, as well the logistical considerations surrounding the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba.