U.S. Loosens embargo on Cuba

Daily News Article   —   Posted on January 16, 2015

An old car with the Cuban flag painted on the trunk is seen near Havana, Cuba on Jan. 7.

(Associated Press at FoxNews) – The Obama administration began to chip away at the U.S. embargo against Cuba, announcing new changes taking effect today that will allow more trade and travel between the two countries.

The changes were announced despite concerns from members of Congress that the landmark shift in U.S.-Cuba relations is a “one-sided deal” that will benefit the Castro regime.

They come three days after U.S. officials confirmed the release of 53 political prisoners Cuba had promised to free. But some of those prisoners reportedly are still facing restrictions and being monitored.

Announced Thursday, the new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations are the next step in President Obama’s goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the government of Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother.

Only Congress can end the five-decade embargo. But the measures make a number of changes weakening it.

Among them, they would allow U.S. citizens to start bringing home small amounts of Cuban cigars after more than a half-century ban.

They would give permission for Americans to use credit cards in Cuba and U.S. companies to export telephone, computer and Internet technologies. Investments in some small business are permitted. General tourist travel is still prohibited, but Americans authorized to visit Cuba need no longer apply for special licenses.

Obama vowed to soften the embargo last month and begin restoring diplomatic ties with Havana, saying “these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.” The deal was the product of 18 months of secret talks that culminated in the exchange of imprisoned spies and release of Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years.

The sudden rapprochement [reconciliation] between Cold War foes has divided U.S. lawmakers across party lines and interests.

Among Republicans and Democrats in Congress, Cuban-Americans such as Sens. Marco Rubio (Repub.) of Florida and Bob Menendez (Dem.) of New Jersey have been particularly vocal in opposition.

Rubio on Thursday questioned whether the changes were even legal.

“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. “Given existing U.S. laws about our Cuba policy, this slew of regulations leave at least one major question President Obama and his administration have failed to answer so far: what legal authority does he have to enrich the Castro regime in these ways?”

He said the “one-sided deal is enriching a tyrant and his regime at the expense of U.S. national interests and the Cuban people.”


Cuban President Raul Castro

But White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the changes would help “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,” he said in a statement.

Some pro-business* types have welcomed the opportunity to open up a new export market in a country so close to American shores. The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce [*seen by conservatives as pro-crony capitalism and pro-corporate welfare but not pro-entrepreneur], for example, said Wednesday it was better for the U.S. to sell computers, smartphones and cars to Cuba than to cede such business to countries like Russia and China. Still, the embargo as a whole appears unlikely to fall anytime soon.

Starting Friday, U.S. companies will be able to export mobile phones, televisions, memory devices, recording devices, computers and software to a country with notoriously poor Internet and telecommunications infrastructure. …

U.S. and Cuba are scheduled to hold migration talks in Havana next week, the next step in their normalization process. Leading the American delegation is Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America. Her visit marks the highest-level trip to Cuba by a U.S. official since 1980.

Further down the road, Washington envisions reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

[YahooNews reported: “Also casting a shadow on potential deals is the possibility of litigation by Cuban-Americans and U.S. firms whose property was confiscated in Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution and may try to sue companies entering into business with the Cuban government.”]

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Q: Can U.S. citizens visit Cuba?
A: The U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control oversees travel to Cuba. There are 12 categories of people who are allowed to visit. They include: close relatives of Cubans, academics, those traveling on official government business, those on humanitarian or religious missions, journalists and people on accredited cultural education programs.

Q: What changed?
A: The groups of people allowed to visit Cuba remain the same but they no longer need to apply for a license to travel.

Q: What about everybody else?
A: That's fuzzier. It's still illegal for Americans to visit Cuba if they don't fit into one of those 12 groups, but without the need to apply for a license it could be impossible for the government to enforce such a restriction.

Q: How can I buy a ticket?
A: Until now, the government has issued licenses to tour operators who then help travelers obtain visas and sell spots on trips to Cuba. Many of them are mom and pop travel agencies in Florida, catering to Cuban-Americans. Others are large tour companies offering weeklong educational trips for $3,000 to nearly $8,000 a person. The new regulations allow travel agents and airlines to sell tickets without the need for a specific license from Office of Foreign Assets Control. That means it will be much easier to book a trip and prices should come down significantly.

Q: How do U.S. travelers buy goods in Cuba?
A: Banks and credit card companies have been prohibited from doing business in Cuba. That gets lifted in these new rules. But don't expect to see ATMs or businesses accepting Visa, MasterCard or American Express immediately. Large hotels are likely to be the first businesses to let travelers swipe to pay but mom and pop restaurants or local shops could take much longer. So travelers — in the near term — still need to bring a lot of cash.

Q: What can Americans bring back?
A: Authorized visitors can bring home up to $400 worth of goods acquired in Cuba for personal use. This includes no more than $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco products.

Q: Will there be limits to the number of visitors?
A: Without the need for a license, there is no limit. However, Cuba only has so many hotel rooms and other necessary infrastructure to support tourism. In the short-term, that will curtail the number of visitors.

Q: Who flies from the U.S. to Cuba?
A: American Airlines, JetBlue and Sun Country offer charter flights to the Cuban cities of Havana, Holguin, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos. Until now, the only way onto those planes was through one of those travel agencies. That could quickly change. But don't expect airlines to suddenly flood the market. Like all other route decisions, airlines need to see if there is a large enough market willing to pay high enough airfares. For instance, a Southwest Airlines spokesman said Thursday, "Cuba is a good future opportunity we are studying." And Cuba is still a difficult destination to serve. JetBlue brings a mechanic along on each of its charter flights.

Q: Are there other ways for Americans to visit Cuba?
A: The Cuban government doesn't prohibit Americans from visiting. So for years, intrepid travelers have broken the U.S. law by entering Cuba via Mexico or Canada and asking officials not to stamp their passports. (from yahoo news uk and ireland)

More from the article above:  Americans permitted to travel to Cuba for family visits, official U.S. government business, journalism, research, education, religious activity and other reasons fall under a U.S. general license and don't need to apply for a separate license. A limit on remittance payments to family members in Cuba will be raised to $8,000 per year, from $2,000 per year. Americans visiting Cuba will be allowed to bring home $100 in alcohol and tobacco products, and $400 in total goods.

Other changes include:

  • Travel agents and airlines can fly to Cuba without a special license.
  • Insurance companies can provide coverage for health, life and travel insurance policies for individuals residing in or visiting Cuba.
  • Financial institutions may open accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate authorized transactions.
  • Investments can be made in some small businesses and agricultural operations.