By Anna Yukhananov and Krista Hughes
The United States rolled out a sweeping set of measures on Thursday to ease the half-century-old embargo against Cuba, opening up the country to expanded travel, trade and financial activities.
Defying hardline critics in Congress, President Barack Obama made good on a commitment he made a month ago to begin loosening some US economic sanctions against the communist-ruled island as part of an effort to end decades of hostility.
The Treasury and Commerce Departments issued a package of new rules that will allow US exports of telecommunications, agricultural and construction equipment, permit expanded travel to Cuba and authorize some kinds of banking relations.
It was the first tangible US step to implement the changes Obama pledged on Dec. 17 when he and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to restore diplomatic relations between the Cold War foes.
“Today’s announcement takes us one step closer to replacing out-of-date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people,” US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a statement.
The new regulations will allow Americans to travel to Cuba for any of a dozen specific reasons, including family visits, education and religion, without first obtaining a special license from the US government.
The revamped rules will also make it easier for US companies to export mobile phone devices and software as well as provide Internet services in Cuba.
In addition, there will be a change in the definition of “cash in advance” payment required by Cuban buyers, which could help a variety of business interests, most notably US agriculture, in gaining greater access to Cuban markets.
The rollout comes days after Cuba completed the release of 53 prisoners it had promised to free and a week before high-level US-Cuba talks in Havana aimed at starting to normalize ties.
While Obama is using executive powers to poke holes in trade barriers with Cuba, only Congress can lift the longstanding embargo. With Republicans controlling the Senate and the House, there is little chance of that happening any time soon.