Cuba libre: US eases rules on rum, travel and cash transactions

As Obama heralds new dawn, US travel and commercial rules are loosened for the island nation

U.S. rum aficionados are abuzz over the potential for making Cuba libres with Cuban rum now that Americans visiting the Caribbean island will be allowed to bring home rum distilled there, for the first time since the embargo took effect 55 years ago.
Franklin Reyes/AP

A significant easing of U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba goes into effect Friday, allowing many Americans to visit the island, just 90 miles south of Miami but for decades largely forbidden.

The Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), approved many of the changes announced on Dec. 17 by President Barack Obama as he welcomed a new era in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Travel agents and airlines will no longer require specific permits for visits to Cuba, although tourist visas aren’t on the table yet. United Airlines has already planned flights to Cuba from Houston and Newark, pending government approval.

Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul, a New Jersey–based travel agency specializing in trips to Cuba, said his office was “inundated” with travel inquiries Thursday. He said many people called hoping to book flights in the next week.

“Their impression is that the general license means that pretty much anyone can hop onto a plane and go to Cuba. But that’s not what they mean,” he said. “Each category has opened up quite a lot, but still, that does not mean the restrictions have gone away. There is a set of criteria that you have to fulfill.”

There are now 12 types of travel the U.S. government will broadly permit, meaning that “individuals who meet the conditions laid out in the regulations will not need to apply for a license to travel to Cuba,” according to a Treasury Department fact sheet.

These categories include those visiting family; government and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalists; researchers and meeting participants; students; religious organizations; those involved in performing arts, clinics, workshops, competitions and exhibitions; those providing support for the Cuban people or carrying out humanitarian projects; private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.

Americans can now also use U.S. debit and credit cards on the island, and there is no longer a limit on daily travel spending. Running out of cash or losing one’s wallet will no longer represent a massive problem, since banks will, in theory, be able to wire funds more easily in the near future. Health and life insurance policies will now cover individuals as they do in any other foreign country.

Visitors may now carry up to $10,000 in cash to Cuba for family remittances, in addition to the $8,000 that may be wired to family in the country each year.

Perhaps most enticing to aficionados of Cuba’s most famous exports, travelers are allowed to bring home $100 of alcohol and tobacco products, such as Havana Club and Cohiba cigars, out of $400 in total personal goods and souvenirs.

And travelers will soon be able to take advantage of better Internet and telecommunications links on the island, with the unfettered import of high-tech devices.

Some of the categories of travel currently allowed — such as educational trips labeled “people to people” — already involve a tourist visa issued by the Cuban government. But such visits are still not considered general tourism by the U.S. government, which continues to prohibit ordinary tourist visits.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Thursday described the shift as a “series of milestones.” She said the announcement was “completely in line with discussion we had with Cubans about policy change.”

Marazul’s Guild said, “Once upon a time, even professors and scientists needed to apply to [OFAC], and it took four to five months — if they gave [a license] to you.”

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