WASHINGTON — The U.S. government on Friday will begin making it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba than it has been for more than 50 years.
The Obama administration on Thursday announced a set of new regulations to take effect Friday easing decades-old restrictions on travel, business and remittances, putting into reality some of the changes promised by President Obama last month when he announced plans to resume normal diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Under the new regulations, Americans will now be allowed to travel to Cuba for any of a dozen specific reasons without first obtaining a special license from the government. Airlines and travel agents will be allowed to provide service to Cuba without a specific license. And travelers will be permitted to use credit cards and spend money while in the country and bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including up to $100 in alcohol or tobacco.
The new regulations will also make it easier for U.S. telecommunications providers and financial institutions to do business with Cuba. Americans will be allowed to send more money to Cubans, up to $2,000 every three months instead of the $500 currently permitted.
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While formally the new rules do not allow basic tourism, they are written in such a way that experts said they may have that effect.
“This is basically the end of the travel ban once they work out the kinks,” said Julia Sweig, a longtime scholar and author on Cuba.
“At first glance the new regulations look to allow most Americans to travel to Cuba without having to ask for permission in advance and by booking air travel directly rather than through authorized groups and agencies,” she said. “Next move will have to be a civil-aviation agreement to allow commercial, not just charter, air travel.”
Administration officials said the new approach also would benefit Cubans.
“These changes will have a direct impact in further engaging and empowering the Cuban people, promoting positive change for Cuba’s citizens,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, whose department oversees sanctions policy, said in a statement.
The administration moved to ease the restrictions after obtaining confirmation that 53 incarcerated people it deemed political prisoners had been released in accordance with the agreement Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba struck last month. Cuba has also released an American held prisoner for years, Alan Gross, and a Cuban who had worked as a spy for the United States. Obama released three Cuban spies who had been held for years and were considered folk heroes in Havana.
The broader trade embargo first imposed by President Eisenhower after the Cuban revolution that brought Castro’s brother, Fidel, to power will remain in place unless Congress decides to lift it, as Obama has urged it to do.
Critics, led by Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, have argued that Obama is playing into the hands of the Castro brothers by relaxing sanctions without obtaining any meaningful commitment to change. Cuba remains one of the most repressive countries, according to human-rights groups and the State Department, which have catalogued the many ways freedom is restricted on the island nation.
Americans for years have found ways to circumvent travel restrictions to Cuba. Many simply fly to another country like Mexico first and then head to Cuba from there. According to the Cuban government, 98,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba in 2012, a year after Obama previously loosened the restrictions, twice as many as traveled there five years earlier. That does not include perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who travel there each year but are not counted by the Havana government because they are still considered Cubans.
Under previous rules, Americans wanting to travel legally to Cuba had to justify their trips under 12 categories and then in some cases obtain a specific license from the Treasury Department to do so.
Among those categories: family visits; journalistic, religious, educational, professional and humanitarian activities; artistic or sports performances; and “support for the Cuban people.” Private firms arranged “people to people” programs to allow Americans to travel under those categories.
Under the new regulations, Americans will not need licenses to certify that they fit those categories.