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January 15, 2015

U.S. takes first steps to ease Cuba embargo

Measures include expanded travel, trade, financial activities

WASHINGTON - The United States rolled out a sweeping set of measures on Thursday to ease the half-century-old embargo against Cuba, opening up the country to expanded travel, trade and financial activities.

Defying hardline critics in Congress, President Barack Obama made good on a commitment he made a month ago to begin loosening some U.S. economic sanctions against the communist-ruled island as part of an effort to end decades of hostility.

The Treasury and Commerce Departments issued a package of new rules that will allow U.S. exports of telecommunications, agricultural and construction equipment, permit expanded travel to Cuba and authorize some kinds of banking relations.

It was the first tangible U.S. step to implement the changes Obama pledged on Dec. 17 when he and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to restore diplomatic relations between the Cold War foes.

"Today’s announcement takes us one step closer to replacing out-of-date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people," U.S. Treasury Secretary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

The new regulations will allow Americans to travel to Cuba for any of a dozen specific reasons, including family visits, education and religion, without first obtaining a special license from the U.S. government.

The revamped rules will also make it easier for U.S. companies to export mobile phone devices and software as well as provide Internet services in Cuba.

In addition, there will be a change in the definition of  “cash in advance” payment required by Cuban buyers, which could help a variety of business interests, most notably U.S. agriculture, in gaining greater access to Cuban markets.

The rollout comes days after Cuba completed the release of 53 prisoners it had promised to free and a week before high-level U.S.-Cuba talks in Havana aimed at starting to normalize ties.

While Obama is using executive powers to poke holes in trade barriers with Cuba, only Congress can lift the longstanding embargo. With Republicans controlling the Senate and the House, there is little chance of that happening any time soon.

Americans will be allowed to take home up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco from Cuba, according to BBC News.

An associate at Holt's Cigar Company in Philadelphia told PhillyVoice he does not see the change having a big effect on the business, as the $100 only amounts to roughly eight to 10 cigars.

Cuba ranked No. 2 on The New York Times' list of places in the world to travel to in 2015.