— -- The Obama administration took a series of major steps today toward its goal of normalizing relations with Cuba, easing restrictions on the U.S. travel ban it says has kept the communist nation isolated for over half a century.
But the new rules aren’t designed for everyone. The typical U.S. tourist who wants to visit Cuban beaches isn’t necessarily allowed to hop on a plane this weekend.
WHO CAN TRAVEL?
The Treasury and Commerce Departments, the agencies that announced the changes today, said the eased restrictions on travel are aimed at 12 specific categories of Americans, with a focus on businesses and those with family in Cuba.
Individuals who meet the criteria are free to fly to Cuba through a third country and, most importantly, they no longer need to apply for a license.
Those eligible to travel: families; employees on official business for U.S. and foreign governments; journalists; professional researchers and educators; exporters and importers; and individuals involved with religious activities, public performers, humanitarian work or athletic competition.
But critics believe the restrictions are rife with loopholes, offering little protection from Americans who falsely claim they plan to travel for “religious” or “humanitarian” purposes. Without the need to apply for a license with the U.S. government, the airlines will be doing the regulating.
But the Treasury Department warned in a news release today that “violations of the terms and conditions could result in penalties under U.S. law.” In other words, if you lie about who you are or what you’re doing in Cuba, you could get in trouble. The news release did not elaborate on how severe or even what those punishments may be.
WHAT’S DIFFERENT IN CUBA, AND CAN I BRING BACK CIGARS?
The White House hopes softened travel restrictions, effective Friday, are likely to incentivize a diverse groups of travelers. For Americans who meet these conditions, life and business in Cuba will come with far fewer restrictions.
-Remittances, or financial gifts, for families will be increased to $10,000 a year and remittances for banking institutions no longer require special licenses.
-Travelers will be allowed to use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba.
-There could soon be far better cellphone and Internet service. The Office of Foreign Assets Control is permitted to facilitate the process of establishing better telecommunications inside Cuba and between third countries.
-Workers can export building equipment and materials used by the private sector or construct or renovate Cuba’s crumbling infrastructure.
-Upon leaving Cuba, Americans will be able to import up to $400 worth of goods, including no more than $100 of alcohol or tobacco products.
Many Americans will pay close attention to that last easement. But consumers of fine cigars may still have to smuggle them back. The average box of Cohibas runs at around $300.
HOW CAN I GET THERE NOW?
If you fit one of the categories for travel to Cuba, you can leave on a flight Friday through a third country. No major carriers offer direct flights out of the United States.
WHEN WILL AMERICANS BE ALLOWED TO TRAVEL THERE?
The administration is doing what it can through executive action to widen the parameters as far as it can to allow Americans to go to Cuba, but it can only do so much without the approval of Capitol Hill. Ultimately, it’s up to the Republican-led Congress to lift all restrictions on American trade and travel, and right now there is no pending legislation to do so.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration if forging ahead. Later this month the State Department will begin to lay the groundwork for a new U.S. Embassy in Havana, when Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson travels to the region.