Obama administration lifts travel, financial restrictions before historic Cuba trip

Los Angeles Times

By: Christi Parsons

The Obama administration is loosening restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba and Cubans using U.S. dollars, removing long-standing barriers to closer ties as President Obama prepares to make a historic trip to Havana this weekend.

The new rules announced Tuesday mean that Americans can now take personal trips to Cuba on their own, instead of with expensive group tours, as long as they declare that the trip is to learn about Cuban people and culture.

Travel will be permitted for almost any cultural activity -- from musical performances and art appreciation to baseball games. Travelers will be able easily to declare their plans while booking on a travel website.

As the Obama administration moves to normalize ties with Cuba, officials believe personal and commercial ties will help bridge the gap between the two nations after five decades of diplomatic estrangement.

Those budding relationships will do more for Cuban liberty than any official U.S. action, said Ben Rhodes, the Obama deputy national security advisor who has helped lead more than a year of talks between the two nations.

“This is in America’s national interest,” Rhodes said Tuesday, “and represents the best way for us to improve opportunities for the Cuban people.”

The changes come five days before Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to set foot on the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

The talks were controversial for Obama because of the human rights abuses and economic practices of the communist Castro regime. But the easing of restrictions under his executive control has been met warmly by some U.S. business interests.

The new rules will change the way the Departments of Treasury and Commerce control Cuban assets and exports, letting Cubans open U.S. bank accounts and allowing those living in the United States to earn a salary or compensation.

American telecommunications firms are eagerly watching the potentially lucrative market. Major League Baseball is in talks with the Cuban government to let Cuban players sign directly with its teams.

At present, Cuban players essentially have to renounce their citizenship by requesting political asylum from the U.S. government.

As it stands, though, MLB hasn’t yet been able to work out some other differences with the Cuban government, such as how many players can be drafted and whether those players can compete in the Cuban summer leagues, according to U.S. officials familiar with those talks.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, an umbrella public-policy organization, praised the changes, but said it remained crucial for Congress to lift the embargo and travel ban.

“This is what historic change looks like," Williams said in a statement. "The new regulations will speed up a process that is now all but inevitable. It will lift important obstacles to the full normalization of relations."