The United States and Cuba have agreed to open diplomatic relations between them, easing travel and business restrictions. On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced a swap of prisoners. Cuba will release American Alan Gross, who has spent the last five years in a Cuban prison on espionage charges, and the U.S. will release three Cubans convicted in 2001 of spying against the United States and contributing to the deaths of four members of the anti-Castro group Brothers to the Rescue. Alan Gross was detained in 2009 after traveling to Cuba to set up internet access that circumvented local censorship for several of the Jewish communities in the area. The President announced that 50 years of sanctions have not worked and it is time for change.
President Obama announced several policy changes towards Cuba, expanding travel under general licenses including travel to Cuba for family visits, educational visits, humanitarian projects, but still restricting tourism to the country. The ban on importing Cuban cigars is over. Travelers will be able to import $400 in goods from the country, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco (including Cuban cigars) and do business with Cuban people. U.S. credit and debit cards will be permitted for use by travelers to Cuba. The President will also expand commercial sales and exports to Cuba. Notably, U.S. officials report that the U.S. will re-open the embassy in the Cuban capital of Havana that was closed in 1961.
The United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in 1960 and ended diplomatic relations a year later. This embargo was codified in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. Thus, while the President has some authority to ease trade and travel restrictions, only Congress can overturn the embargo.
Officials are stressing that easing diplomatic relations is an effort to promote change in Cuba. The Cuban government has promised to permit more access to the Internet and allow the Red Cross and the United Nations to return to the country. As stated in the official White House Press release – “Ultimately, it will be the Cuban people who drive economic and political reforms.”
Paloma Z. Coelho
Santucci Priore, P.L.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Alex Brown