Cuba-US relations: Washington moves to ease restrictions on business and travel - but the economic embargo remains

The changes are likely to provoke an angry reaction from conservatives on Capitol Hill who oppose the thaw with Havana

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The Independent US

Barely a month after President Barack Obama declared an end to diplomatic hostilities between the United States and Cuba, Washington has moved to ease restrictions on business and travel links between the two countries.

To take effect on Friday, the changes will for example allow American companies for the first time to export telephone, computer and internet technologies to the island, including mobile phones. Also announced today by the US Treasury Department are amendments to the limits on US travel to Cuba.

The easing of the rules, however, still falls far short of ending the decades-old economic embargo on Cuba that could only happen with an act of Congress. With Republicans in control of both chambers that may be a long time coming. Even the changes announced today are likely to provoke an angry reaction from conservatives on Capitol Hill who oppose the thaw with Havana.

With the embargo still in place, there will still be no open travel to Cuba from the US. However, the announcement means that those who have specific reasons to visit the island, for instance on educational, research or journalistic missions, will now be able to do so without having to seek a license for the US government. American visitors will also be able to use US-based credit cards on the island.

Symbolically potent also is an end to the blanket ban on bringing tobacco home to the US from Cuba, which means Cuban cigars are now welcomed by Uncle Sam, though in restricted quantities.

The US is now “one step closer to replacing out of date policies,” US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said.



The deal between Mr Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro continues to draw criticism from many Republicans, notably Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida of Cuban descent who is considered likely to make a run for the presidency in 2016. He has vowed to spearhead an effort to block plans by the White House to open an embassy in Havana and appoint a US ambassador. A top US State Department official will visit Havana later this month to discuss the embassy opening.

The rapprochement may have been boosted by news earlier this week, however, that the Cuban regime had fulfilled a provision at the heart of the agreement, which took 18 months of secret negotiation to tie down, that bound it to release 53 political dissidents from its prisons.

Currently, as many as 90,000 Americans qualify to visit Cuba in spite of the embargo, but now that the need for licences has been removed that number could balloon very quickly, travel experts said.

The White House has justified the end of restrictions on technology items to Cuba on the grounds that it will help the Cuban people access the internet and other forms of communications that will then help foster a more open society.

The new rules “immediately enable the American people to provide more resources to empower the Cuban population to become less dependent upon the state-driven economy,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest commented.