Enrique De La Osa / Reuters

US eases Cuba embargo by loosening trade, travel restrictions

Relaxed regulations are the latest step in President Obama’s goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Havana

The Obama administration is putting a large dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba as of Friday, significantly loosening restrictions on U.S. trade and investment.

The new rules also open up the island nation to greater U.S. travel and allow U.S. citizens to start bringing home small amounts of Cuban cigars after more than a half-century ban.

Thursday's announcement of new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations are the next step in President Barack Obama's ambitious goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the government of Cuban President Raúl Castro, Fidel's younger brother. They come three days after U.S. officials confirmed the release of 53 political prisoners Cuba had promised to free.

Only Congress can end the five-decade embargo. But the measures give permission for U.S. residents 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 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 of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey have been particularly vocal in opposition.

But some pro-business types have welcomed the opportunity to open up a new export market in a country so close to U.S. shores. The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 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. The goal is to "contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people within Cuba, in the United States, and the rest of the world," according to a Treasury Department fact sheet. 

The U.S. is now "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 Jacob Lew said Thursday.

Other changes include:

— No more limits on how much money U.S. residents spend in Cuba each day or what they spend it on.

— Permissible use of U.S. credit and debit cards.

— 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.

— Companies may ship building materials and equipment to private Cuban companies to renovate private buildings.

United Airlines has already announced that it will begin offering flights to Cuba, pending approval from the federal government.

The U.S. and Cuba are scheduled to hold migration talks in Havana next week, the next step in their normalization process. Leading the U.S. 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 and carrying out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. Secretary of State John Kerry could travel to the island later this year. 

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press 

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