The United States on Tuesday announced further loosening of travel and banking restrictions on Cuba five days ahead of President Barack Obama's historic visit to the island
The latest softening of financial and commercial regulations is the fifth round of changes since Obama announced his rapprochement with Cuba in December 2014, ending more than half a century of hostility between the two countries.
"Today’s steps build on the actions of the last 15 months as we continue to break down economic barriers, empower the Cuban people and advance their financial freedoms, and chart a new course in U.S.-Cuba relations," U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement.
Despite Obama’s persistent efforts to end all economic sanctions on Cuba, the U.S. economic embargo against the communist-run island remains intact, including a ban on tourism and strict limits on business activities.
The Republican-controlled U.S. Congress has said it has no plans to discuss legislation to lift the embargo. In an i nterview with CNN on Monday Obama said he was resigned to being unable to end the embargo during his presidency, despite bipartisan support in Congress to lift it. “My strong prediction is that sometime in the next president's administration, whether they are a Democrat or a Republican, that the embargo in fact will be removed,” he said.
The latest round of regulatory changes are among the most sweeping so far and eases U.S. bank and shipping transactions with Cuba, while relaxing rules for Americans to travel to the island for educational purposes, according to a joint statement by the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments. In future, individuals will be allowed to visit the island for "people-to-people educational travel," instead of requiring them to sign up for group tours.
Last year the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations after a 54-year break, and the Obama administration eased rules in January to allow scheduled air service between the two countries, separated by only 90 miles of ocean.
The new rules will allow U.S. businesses to hire Cubans, including athletes and artists, and pay them salaries in the United States, official said. Cubans will also in future be allowed to open U.S. bank accounts. That could pave the way for a proposal by Major League Baseball to allow Cuban prospects to be hired directly by U.S. professional teams without having to defect or be smuggled out of the island.
One new regulations would allow U.S. firms to buy Cuban-origin software.
The Treasury Department will also humanitarian groups and foundations to open offices in Cuba to conduct “non-commercial activities intended to provide support for the Cuban people.” U.S. companies will also be allowed to establish a “business presence" in Cuba for exports of agricultural and medical goods that are already exempted under the embargo, as well as mail and cargo services.