US eases travel, trade with Cuba from Friday

Washington (AFP) - The United States will ease travel and trade restrictions with Cuba on Friday, marking the first concrete steps towards restoring normal ties with the Cold War-era foe since announcing a historic rapprochement.

While full-fledged tourism to Cuba remains prohibited, certain approved categories of Americans, like journalists, scholars, artists and athletes will face fewer bureaucratic hurdles to travel to the Communist-ruled nation under the new rules.

American travelers will be able to use US credit and debit cards in Cuba, and bring home up to $400 worth of goods, including a $100 worth of Cuban rum or cigars.

Cubans living in the United States will also be allowed to send home more money, though the United States trade embargo remains in effect.

"Today's announcement takes us one step closer to replacing out-of-date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people," Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said Thursday.

The new measures will also facilitate telecommunications services with the island and allow exports of communications devices and supporting services.

"These changes will immediately enable the American people to provide more resources to empower the Cuban population to become less dependent upon the state-driven economy, and help facilitate our growing relationship with the Cuban people," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

US President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro announced the historic agreement December 17, opening the way for a reconciliation after more than 50 years of hostile relations.

Roberta Jacobson, US assistant secretary of state for hemispheric affairs, is leading a US delegation to Havana January 21-22 for talks on opening embassies in Havana and Washington.

Thursday's announcement came just days after the State Department said Cuba had freed 53 prisoners, making good on a pledge to Washington.

- Republican ire -

The shift in policy, however, has come under fire from Republicans, who control both Houses of Congress, which must approve any move to lift the embargo.

Critics fault the administration for gaining little from Havana's communist leadership in the way of commitments to undertake democratic reforms.

"One thing that has become even more crystal clear today is that this one-sided deal is enriching a tyrant and his regime at the expense of US national interests and the Cuban people," Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida.

But Obama argues that the US policy of isolating Cuba has failed, and greater trade and exchange could help foster change in an island in transition under the ageing Castros.

- 'Ease burdens' on Cubans -

"To the extent legally possible, the president has made clear that we want US policy to ease the burdens on the Cuban citizens we seek to help," Lew said.

"Cuba has real potential for economic growth and by increasing travel, commerce, communications, and private business development between the United States and Cuba, the United States can help the Cuban people determine their own future," he said.

A senior administration official told reporters, "The whole effort is to give average Cubans greater opportunities to operate outside of being dependent of the Cuban state."

The changes go into effect on Friday when they are published in the Federal Register, the government said.

Other new regulations allow travelers to take with them up to $10,000 for families, religious organizations or students.

Cubans in the United States will be allowed to send up to $2,000 a quarter to relatives on the island, up from $500.

There will be no limit on remittances to Cubans for humanitarian projects, or to human rights organization or groups designed "to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy."

Money sent to support the development of private businesses and small farms also will be authorized, under the new regulations.

William LeoGrande, a Latin America expert at American University, said the latitude the new rules give US companies to do business with Cuba's nascent private sector marks a big change.

"More openness between Cuba and the rest of the world and between Cuba and the US will eventually lead to if not to a multiparty democracy at least more openness," he said.

"As the threat of the US diminishes people should expect the government to loosen up, it ought to loosen up."