The United States unveiled new measures to make it far easier for Americans to visit Cuba and eased limits on the use of US dollars in trade there as President Barack Obama prepared to make a historic trip to Havana next week.
The new measures announched on Tuesday will allow Americans to travel more easily to Cuba independently for educational, cultural and other authorized purposes without having to go in organized group tours, creating new cracks in a longstanding US ban on general tourism to the island, Reuters reported.
The new rules are the latest in Obama’s efforts to chip away at sanctions against America’s former Cold War foe by using his executive powers to sidestep US lawmakers, who have so far resisted his call to lift Washington’s more than five-decade-old economic embargo on Cuba.
The easing comes as Obama prepares to make a March 20-22 trip to Cuba, 145 kilometers from the southern tip of Florida, the first sitting US president to visit in 88 years.
Obama’s critics accuse him of giving up too much in return for too little from Cuban President Raul Castro and of now taking a premature “victory lap”.
Since Obama and Castro announced the detente in December 2014, the two countries have restored diplomatic relations and opened embassies in Havana and Washington.
The changes announced on Tuesday allow Cubans to open US bank accounts and authorize those Cubans living in the US to earn a salary or compensation, which could open the door to American big-league baseball teams signing Cuban players without them having to defect.
“It certainly does address the ability of Cuban athletes who can earn salaries in the United States to do so,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters.
US officials declined to predict how this might affect Major League Baseball, which is in negotiations with the US and Cuban governments.
The relaxed travel restrictions, combined with the resumption of regularly scheduled airline service to Cuba later this year, will greatly increase the ability of Americans to visit the once-forbidden island.
American travelers will be largely bound only by the honor system to declare that their travel is authorized, though US officials said they would be monitoring the situation.
US travel to Cuba soared 77 percent to 161,000 visitors last year, according to Cuban government data, even though Americans going there must fit 12 authorized categories.
US officials say travel rose around 50 percent, a discrepancy explained by Americans illicitly traveling to Cuba as tourists through third countries.
Although as many as 20 members of Congress are set to travel with the president, the Republican-led body has not moved to support Obama’s policy shift by lifting the broad embargo.
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