The Obama administration announced new rules Thursday that will greatly expand the leeway American travelers have to travel to Cuba, allow more trade between the former adversaries and make it easier to do business with Cuba.
The new rules chip away at the U.S. trade embargo, part of President Barack Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. Talks to begin the process are scheduled next week in Havana.
“These changes will immediately enable the American people to provide more resources to empower the Cuban population to become less dependent upon the state-driven economy, and help facilitate our growing relationship with the Cuban people,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
Advocates of more commerce cheered the new rules, from farm state politicians to big business.
“Amending these regulations is not just about increasing commercial ties for agriculture producers in Kansas and across the country. I believe closer ties could help change the nature of the relationship between the Cuban people and their repressive government,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.
“They will permit U.S. businesses to begin getting to know Cuba and also enable businesses and private citizens to engage directly with the Cuban people,” said Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues for the National Foreign Trade Council, a lobby for multinational corporations.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., led the charge of critics saying the new regulations would enrich Cuba’s dictators, not its people.
“This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans,” Rubio said, “as well as its activities against U.S. national interests in Latin America and beyond.”
The Obama administration said the new travel and trade would help ordinary people.
“Basically the whole effect is to enable average Cubans, to give them greater opportunities to essentially operate outside of being dependent on the Cuban state,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, along with other administration officials quoted for this story.
Lawyers are still digesting the faster-than-expected rules, but here’s a sample of what commerce between the countries might look like: A private Cuban farmer who grows coffee will be able to import roasting equipment from the United States, a Cuban fashion designer could sell her clothes to a Miami boutique and a U.S. company could send paint and building supplies to a Cuban who wants to build a home or repair one.
Bob Guild, vice president of Florida-based Marazul Charters, said the company was inundated with calls Thursday. “People think that anyone can go to Cuba anytime now, and that is not true,” he said.
The changes mean that travelers who fall into any of 12 pre-established categories will no longer need to apply for licenses to travel to Cuba.
The categories include family visits, official U.S. or foreign governments, journalism, professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; private foundations or research, educational institutes; export, import or transmission of information.
These travelers still will need to obtain visas from the Cuban government, but none of them will have to seek prior approval for trips from the U.S.
Guild said he expected limited vetting by travel agents of whether travelers actually fall into the 12 categories, though the rules say that only legal travel is allowed. A person couldn’t attend a geologists’ conference, for example, just because he or she had a passing interest in rocks.
“The rules say they have to have an established professional interest. It can’t just be casual interest,” he said.
The changes do pave the way for restoring daily flights eventually between Cuba and the United States, presumably from South Florida. That would require action from the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
“I could foresee that over time, as the Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security are able to implement their required steps, it is possible under these (regulatory) steps,” said a second administration official.
The U.S. also is raising the limit on cash remittances to Cuban nationals other than certain prohibited Cuban government and Cuban Communist Party officials, from the current $500 per quarter to $2,000.
Authorized U.S. travelers to Cuba will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods acquired in Cuba for personal use, up from $100. Alcohol and tobacco products are limited to no more than $100.
A box of quality Cuban cigars, however, sells for more than $100, and the second official said the limit was not a coincidence.
“We thought it made sense to permit an opening, but not an opening greater than $100 for alcohol and tobacco products,” the official said, suggesting a higher limit might have benefited the Castro regime.
Another important change is removing a requirement that the Cuban government pay for humanitarian food shipments before they’re sent. This will make it easier for U.S. farmers to export to Cuba. The White House said U.S. farmers sent about $300 million in exports to the island last year.
“We, in the licensing process, actually authorized about $3 billion worth of (farm) exports, so there is a big gap between what we authorized and what is actually exported,” said a third administration official, highlighting what will be an opportunity for American farmers.
Even with the easing, the overall trade embargo remains in place, and the administration said it had gone as far as it could go unless Congress acted to remove it.
“We certainly would welcome congressional action that would make it possible for people to travel to Cuba solely for the purposes of spending time on the beach in Cuba,” Earnest said.
The policy changes come as talks aimed at restoring diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba are scheduled to begin next Wednesday in Havana, with Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson leading a U.S. delegation.
Jacobson suggested last month that it wouldn’t take very long to set up an embassy, calling the process of restoring diplomatic ties between the former adversaries “relatively straightforward.”