US eases restrictions on Cuba

Oct 15, 2016
US President Barack Obama met Cuban President Raul Castro at the United Nations General Assembly. Washington has eased trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.
US President Barack Obama met Cuban President Raul Castro at the United Nations General Assembly. Washington has eased trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.

Americans traveling to Cuba will be allowed to bring home more of the communist-ruled island’s coveted cigars and rum under new measures announced by the US government on Friday to further ease trade, travel and financial restrictions that have been in place for decades.

The steps are part of President Barack Obama’s effort to make his historic opening to Cuba “irreversible” by the time he leaves office in January.

The latest in a series of new rules since the two former Cold War foes began normalizing relations in 2014 will allow export to Cuba of some US consumer goods sold online, open the door to Cuban pharmaceutical companies to do business in the United States and let Cubans and Americans engage in joint medical research.

For the average American traveler, the biggest change is the removal of limits on the amount of rum and cigars they can pack in their luggage for personal use.

The administration partially lifted the ban in 2015, allowing Americans to bring back $100 in alcohol and tobacco products.

Now they can come home with as much as they want as long as they pay duties and taxes.

US law still bans general tourism to Cuba, but the administration has used previous regulatory packages to make it easier for Americans to visit the island under 12 officially authorised categories.

The latest measures are part of an executive order on Cuba through which Obama seeks to sidestep the Republican-controlled Congress, which has resisted his call to lift Washington’s economic embargo after more than 50 years.

Republican critics say Obama has made too many concessions to Cuba for too little in return, especially on human rights issues.

Other changes announced on Friday include allowing Cuban pharmaceutical companies to apply for US regulatory approval, letting US firms improve Cuban infrastructure for humanitarian purposes and authorising them to provide safety-related aircraft services in Cuba, where US airlines are beginning regularly scheduled flights.

To boost US-Cuba trade, Washington was also lifting a prohibition on foreign ships from entering a US port to load or unload cargo for 180 days after calling on a Cuban port, according to a joint statement from US treasury and commerce departments.

The announcement, less than a month before the Nov 8 US presidential election, represents Obama’s effort to normalise ties between Washington and Havana as much as he can before his term ends.

“Today, I approved a Presidential Policy Directive that takes another major step forward in our efforts to normalise relations with Cuba,” Obama said in a statement, adding that his goal was to “make our opening to Cuba irreversible.”

A senior US official, who asked not to be named, said the administration wants to lock in benefits from the new Cuba policy for US citizens and companies and make it impossible for any future president to “turn back the clock.”

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton backs the policy of rapprochement with Havana.

Republican Donald Trump has vowed to roll back Obama’s executive actions.

Obama traveled to Havana in March, the first visit by a US president in 88 years.

The trip was made possible by his breakthrough agreement with Cuban President Raul Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

Since the opening, Obama has repeatedly used his executive powers to relax trade and travel restrictions, while pushing Cuba to accelerate market-style reforms and boost political and economic freedom.

The latest package, the sixth, is likely to be the “last significant tranche of changes” during Obama’s tenure, the senior US official said.

“This new directive consolidates and builds upon the changes we’ve already made,” Obama said. He added, however, that “challenges remain – and very real differences between our governments persist on issues of democracy and human rights.”

The previous package of measures, unveiled in March, made it far easier for Americans to visit Cuba and for the island’s Communist government to conduct long-restricted international trade.

The United States also loosened limits on the use of US dollars in Cuba trade, removing a huge obstacle to Havana’s access to the global banking system.

Even so, the US embargo against Cuba has remained in place, a major irritant in relations.

Only Congress can lift the embargo, and the Republican leadership is not expected to allow such a move anytime soon.