US eases Cuba embargo Friday, island open to greater trade and travel

 havana-live-flags_standard-cuba-usa_600x400HAVANA, 15 January (By Bradley Klapper AP)  The Obama administration is putting a large dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba as of Friday, significantly loosening restrictions on American trade and investment.

The new rules also open up the communist island to greater American travel and allow U.S. citizens to start bringing home small amounts of Cuban goods after more than a half-century ban. Thursday’s announcement of new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations are the next step in President Barack Obama’s ambitious goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the government of Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother.

They come three days after U.S. officials confirmed the release of 53 political prisoners Cuba had promised to free. Only Congress can end the five-decade embargo. But the measures give permission for Americans to use credit cards in Cubaand U.S. companies to export telephone, computer and Internet technologies. Investments in some small business are permitted.
General tourist travel is still prohibited, but Americans authorized to visit Cuba need no longer apply for special licenses.Starting Friday, U.S. companies will be able to export mobile phones, televisions, memory devices, recording devices, computers and software to a country with notoriously poor Internet and telecommunications infrastructure.

The goal is to “contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people within Cuba, in the United States, and the rest of the world,” according to a Treasury Department fact sheet. Internet-based communications will fall under a general license.Other changes include:

No more limits on how much money Americans spend in Cuba each day or what they spend it on.

Permissible use of U.S. credit and debit cards.

Travel agents and airlines can fly to Cuba without a special license.

Insurance companies can provide coverage for health, life and travel insurance policies for individuals residing in or visitingCuba.

Financial institutions may open accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate authorized transactions.

Investments can be made in some small businesses and agricultural operations.

Companies may ship building materials and equipment to private Cuban companies to renovate private buildings.

The U.S. and Cuba are scheduled to hold migration talks in Havana next week, the next step in their normalization process. Leading the American delegation is Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America. Her visit marks the highest-level trip to Cuba by a U.S. official since 1980. Further down the road, Washington envisions reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana and carrying out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. Secretary of State John Kerry could travel to the island later this year.