The Obama administration announced Friday changes to U.S.-Cuba policy that would step up joint medical and scientific work, commerce and people-to-people exchanges between the two nations.
The new regulations, which are to take effect on Monday and are issued by the U.S. departments of Commerce and Treasury, will pave the way for importing Cuban pharmaceuticals and for Americans to deal more directly with the new crop of Cubans who are running their own business ventures.
One of the key changes in the new presidential directive – noted prominently in initial social media posts and news reports after the administration’s announcement – calls for eliminating the $100 limit on the value of Cuban rum and cigars that American travelers can bring back from the island.
In a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials, speaking on background, indicated that the next president would be unwise to undo changes the Obama administration began taking almost two years ago that they say already has made noticeable improvements in the lives of ordinary Cubans on the island.
“The Cuban people continue to be at the center of everything we’re doing,” said a senior administration official. “Expanding our license allow items to be sold directly to Cubans.”
“We’ve seen concrete benefits for Cubans on the island.”
"We've increased the space for this type of travel, people to people exchange, commercial opportunities in ways that are already having a positive impact on the lives of Americans and Cubans," the official said. "Turning back the clock on that policy would only take away those opportunities."
Two Cuban-American members of Congress, who both sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promptly denounced the further thaw in relations between Cuba and the Obama administration. Cuban-American congressional lawmakers, like most critics of the administration’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014, have denounced the change in U.S.-Cuba policy as unfairly benefiting the communist regime, which is said to continue to oppress dissenters.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said in a statement: "After two years of President Obama's Cuba policy, the Castro regime has made out like bandits and received numerous concessions from the U.S. without lifting a finger to return the fugitives it is harboring from American justice, pay Americans for their stolen property, or allow the Cuban people to exercise their God-given freedoms.”
New Jersey Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez, said in a statement that the new changes violate two U.S. laws regarding Cuba.
“Today’s regulatory economic changes from the White House not only benefit state-owned Cuban businesses and bolster the coffers of the Castro regime, but mark a profound shift away from our own commitment to the rule of law and the processes of democracy as we have always known them,” Menendez said.
“The new regulations simply and blatantly violate both the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Cuban Liberty and the Libertad Act of 1996,” the senator said, “which codified the embargo against Cuba.”
“While the Administration may not like the embargo or agree with it, it remains the law of the land,” Menendez added. “At the end of the day, it is outrageous that our own government would seek to break the law and blatantly acknowledge its intent to do so.”
White House officials said the embargo, which dates back more than 50 years, has failed to spark democratic reforms in Cuba.
Asked by reporters in a conference call whether the changes would benefit mainly the Cuban government, officials said they would “have direct and positive benefits” for the Cuban people, “even as it involved the Cuban state.”
Along with the changes on cigars and rum, the administration is also lifting limits on cargo ship travel between the U.S. and Cuba and easing U.S. and Cuban researchers' ability to conduct joint medical research.
Proponents of lifting the embargo praised the new changes.
"Cuba's healthcare system has achieved renown for its world-class doctors and medical breakthroughs,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a group that helps U.S. and Cuba groups connect. “There's no telling what could be accomplished from a thriving partnership between Cuba and the United States, the world's most advanced medical market.”
Includes reporting by The Associated Press.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.