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The US is now “one step closer to replacing out of date policies,” US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said.
In pictures: Timeline of US and Cuba relations
In pictures: Timeline of US and Cuba relations
1/19 Cuba timeline
July 1953: Fidel Castro begins a revolutionary campaign against the regime of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista
2/19 Cuba timeline
January 1959: Castro and Che Guevara enter Havana after a successful final offensive. Batista flees, and Castro becomes prime minister, ruling by decree
3/19 Cuba timeline
October 1960: Castro’s reforms sees hundreds of US businesses in Cuba nationalised and their owners not compensated. In December, US US breaks off diplomatic relations and imposes a trade embargo
4/19 Cuba timeline
April 1961: Cuban exiles launch the Bay of Pigs invasion with US backing
5/19 Cuba timeline
October 1962: A 13-day confrontation known as the Cuban missile crisis begins when Castro allows the USSR to deploy nuclear missiles on the island. Generally regarded as the closest the world has come to nuclear war
6/19 Cuba timeline
1962: US President John F Kennedy signs off a naval blockade
7/19 Cuba timeline
April 1980: A sharp downturn in the Cuban economy and Castro temporarily lifting restrictions sees around 125,000 people, many of them released convicts, flee to the US
8/19 Cuba timeline
February 1996: Cuba shoots down two US aircraft operated by Miami-based Cuban exiles, prompting the US to make its trade embargo permanent
9/19 Cuba timeline
June 2001: The case of the “Cuban Five” begins, as five spies in Miami are convicted of providing intelligence to the Havana government
10/19 Cuba timeline
Nov 2001: US sells $30m of food to the Cuban government to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle, which killed 22 people, the first food export between the countries for more than 40 years
11/19 Cuba timeline
Oct 2003: US President George W Bush announces fresh anti-communist measures, including tightening the travel embargo and creating a new government body, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba
12/19 Cuba timeline
Aug 2006: President Bush seizes the opportunity of President Castro’s illness and a handover of powers to Raul Castro, urging Cubans to work towards democratic change
13/19 Cuba timeline
Feb 2008: Raul Castro officially takes over as president. Washington responds by saying its trade embargo will remain in force unless free and fair elections are held
14/19 Cuba timeline
Dec 2008: A poll by Florida International University suggests for the first time that a majority of Cuban-Americans living in Miami want an end to the embargo
15/19 Cuba timeline
April 2009: President Obama lifts restrictions on family travel to Cuba
16/19 Cuba timeline
Dec 2009: US aid worker Alan Gross is detained in Cuba on suspicion of spying for Washington
17/19 Cuba timeline
Nov 2010: American Ballet Theatre performs in Cuba for the first time in 50 years, the most high-profile in a series of cultural exchanges
18/19 Cuba timeline
Sep 2012: Cuba hints at its willingness to do a deal with Washington on the Gross case
19/19 Cuba timeline
December 2013: President Obama and Raul Castro shake hands at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Castro says in English: “Mr President, I am Castro.” It was hailed in Cuba as “the beginning of the end” for what were then described as “US aggressions”
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.