POLITICS

New trade, travel rules with Cuba start Friday, opening island to US phones, TV's and computers

FILE - In this March 22, 2013 file photo, miniature flags representing Cuba and the U.S. are displayed on the dash of an American classic car in Havana, Cuba.  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 cigars after more than a half-century ban. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes, File)

FILE - In this March 22, 2013 file photo, miniature flags representing Cuba and the U.S. are displayed on the dash of an American classic car in Havana, Cuba. 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 cigars after more than a half-century ban. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes, File)

Starting Friday, the Obama administration will significantly loosen restrictions on American trade and investment with Cuba allowing U.S. companies to export  mobile phones, televisions and computers while easing travel restrictions opening the communist island to more American travelers.

The new rules will put a large dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba and will even allow U.S. citizens to start bringing home small amounts of Cuban cigars after more than a half-century ban.

As of Friday, U.S. companies will also be able to export mobile memory devices, recording devices, 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.

Americans permitted to travel to Cuba for family visits, official U.S. government business, journalism, research, education, religious activity and other reasons fall under a U.S. general license and don't need to apply for a separate license. A limit on remittance payments to family members in Cuba will be raised to $8,000 per year, from $2,000 per year. Americans visiting Cuba will be allowed to bring home $100 in alcohol and tobacco products, and $400 in total goods.

Other changes include:

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

—Remittances allowed to be sent to Cuban nationals has increased from $500 to $2,000 per quarter

—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 visiting Cuba.

—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.

—Certain micro-financing project and entrepreneurial and business training is now authorized.

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 Cuba and 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.

Obama vowed to soften the embargo last month and begin restoring diplomatic ties with Havana, saying "these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked." The deal was the product of 18 months of secret talks that culminated in the exchange of imprisoned spies and release of Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years.

The sudden rapprochement between Cold War foes has divided U.S. lawmakers across party lines and interests. Among Republicans and Democrats in Congress, Cuban-Americans such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey have been particularly vocal in opposition.

But some pro-business types have welcomed the opportunity to open up a new export market in a country so close to American shores. The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, said Wednesday it was better for the U.S. to sell computers, smartphones and cars to Cuba than to cede such business to countries like Russia and China. Still, the embargo as a whole appears unlikely to fall anytime soon.

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.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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