U.S. introduces significant new travel and trade rules with Cuba in effort to normalize relations
New travel and trade rules between the United States and Cuba have come into effect, the biggest change in policy between the two countries in over 50 years. The new measures allow U.S. citizens to use credit cards in Cuba and U.S. businesses to export certain technologies. In addition, Americans will be able to take home up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco when visiting Cuba on vacation.
Cuba also released 53 political prisoners, a majority of them government opposition members, as part of the deal. These efforts seek to re-establish ties between the countries that were severed in 1961.
Although this move punches a hole in the US trade embargo against Cuba, the embargo can only be fully lifted by Congress.
These changes came about when President Obama exercised his executive powers, defying his hard-line critics, mostly in the Republican Party. Without the president’s veto, it is unlikely that Congress would have lifted the embargo or made any similar changes to the existing policy.
Cubans hope that in lifting trade restrictions it will allow them to import rare commodities such as car parts and other technologies and appliances unavailable in communist Cuba.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the changes could potentially be far-reaching in improving economic and diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.
These new rules will “immediately enable the American people to provide more resources to empower the Cuban population to become less dependent upon the state-driven economy,” said Earnest.
While tourism is still banned, the new regulations allow citizens to travel to Cuba for over a dozen specific reasons without obtaining a special license from the government. U.S. credit and debit cards can now be used there, and there will no longer be a policy limiting the amount of money U.S. citizens in Cuba can spend per day.
“We certainly would welcome congressional action that would make it possible for people to travel to Cuba solely for the purposes of spending time on the beach in Cuba,” Earnest said.
U.S. firms will also have an easier time exporting mobile phones and software to Cuba, as well as providing internet services. It is estimated that Cuba has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world at around 5 per cent.
These regulation changes will also allow U.S. investments in small businesses and agricultural operations.
The improved relations between the two countries was announced last month in simultaneous televised speeches by President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro.
Next week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will lead a delegation to Cuba to discuss migration issues. These will be the first high-level talks since the improvement in the countries relations was announced.
The changes in policy have been criticized by Cuban-American Republican Senator Marco Rubio as harmful to ordinary Cubans.
“This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans,” 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?”
About 170,000 authorized U.S. travellers went to Cuba last year and this number is expected only to increase. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said the embargo and travel restrictions must remain until further democratic reforms take place in Havana.
“Despite this administration’s worst intentions, sanctions against the Castro regime remain codified in U.S. law and will remain in force until all political prisoners are released, independent labour unions, press, and political parties are legalized, and free, fair elections are scheduled,” said Diaz-Balart.
One U.S. official said ultimately the policy is an attempt to normalize relations and to empower the Cuban people. “What we’re trying to do is to provide incentives for greater people-to-people exchanges with the hope of empowering average Cubans so they can pursue with greater flexibility, greater chances of success, their individual dreams for small businesses or for contacts with family members or business contacts in the U.S.,” the official said.