U.S. rules open Cuba to agricultural exports

New regulations loosen restrictions on American travel and trade into Cuba

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Reuters) — The United States has announced details of measures designed to ease sanctions on Cuba, opening up the communist-ruled island to more agricultural trade from the U.S., as well as travel, trade and financial activities.

Defying hardline critics in Congress, U.S. president Barack Obama made good on his commitment last month to loosen restrictions on dealings with Cuba as part of a historic effort to end decades of hostility.

The 54-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba will remain in place — only Congress can lift it.

But the package of regulations issued by the treasury and commerce departments, announced Jan. 15 to take effect Jan. 16, will allow U.S. exports of telecommunications, agricultural and construction equipment, permit expanded travel by Americans to the island and open banking relations.

It was the first tangible U.S. step to implement economic changes Obama pledged on Dec. 17 when he and Cuban president Raul Castro announced plans to restore diplomatic relations between the old 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“Today’s announcement takes us one step closer to replacing out-of-date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people,” said U.S. treasury secretary Jacob Lew.

The new regulations will allow Americans to travel to Cuba for any of a dozen specific reasons, without first obtaining a special licence from the U.S. government.

But general tourism will still be banned.

John McAuliff, executive director of the fund for reconciliation and development, which has organized trips to Cuba, said that apart from Cuban-Americans visiting relatives, most other Americans would still be corralled into escorted group tours.

In addition, a changed definition of “cash in advance” payments required by Cuban buyers could help businesses, most notably U.S. agriculture, gain greater access to Cuban markets. The largest U.S. meat processor, Tyson Foods Inc, which already does some business with Cuba, hailed the changes.

Reaction from the U.S. business community, which had pressed the administration to open up Cuban markets, was positive but tempered with caution.

“The regulations were welcome and they went even farther than was articulated in the president’s announcement,” said Jake Colvin, vice-president at the National Foreign Trade Council. “But now it will depend on the reality on the ground in Cuba.”

There was no immediate official reaction from Havana, but some ordinary Cubans welcomed the changes.

“If more Americans can come here, that means more customers, and this will be good for the economy,” said Orlando Veliz, a cook for a private restaurant in Havana.

The announcement came after the Obama administration said Cuba had fulfilled its promise to free 53 political prisoners and a week before high-level U.S.-Cuba talks in Havana aimed at normalizing ties, including discussions on when to reopen embassies.

Under other changes, U.S. travellers will be allowed to bring home small numbers of the Cuban cigars that are highly rated by aficionados.

It will also be easier for U.S. companies to export mobile phone devices and software, as well as to provide internet services in Cuba.

In an expansion of remittances allowed, Americans will now be able to send up to $8,000 to Cuba a year, up from $2,000 previously, and bring $10,000 with them when they travel to the country. They will also be able to use credit and debit cards.



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