Wednesday, December 17, 2014

US - Cuba Agreement : Travel, Cigars and More

The White House announced the changes to Cuba policy as new rules to be posted by the Treasury and Commerce departments. 
The administration’s actions don’t change the 1996 Helms-Burton Act and other laws passed by Congress that restrict most travel and trade with Cuba. But it is the most significant move by the American government to ease sanctions with Cuba in 50 years.
Diplomatic relations
The U.S. will open an embassy in Havana for the first time since President John F. Kennedy severed relations in 1961. Since 1977 the American interest section has operated under in conjunction with the Swiss on a prime piece of real estate off the Malec√≥n, on Havana’s oceanfront. The U.S. Senate, which will be controlled by Republicans in January, would have to approve any ambassador to the island.
    Terror ties
    The U.S. designated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism in 1982. Secretary of State John Kerry will now review that designation and provide a report within six months about Cuba’s contemporary support for international terrorism.
    Travel restrictions
    It will still be illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba strictly for tourism, since that is banned by federal law. But U.S. law allows for 12 categories of legal travel to Cuba, which the Obama administration is expanding.
    The allowed travel categories are: family visits, government business, journalism, professional research and meetings, educational activities, religious activities, “support for the Cuban people,” humanitarian projects, private foundation work and research, import/export work, art and athletic This means that soon it's likely going to get much easier for Americans to travel to Cuba.
    It's worth noting that travel to Cuba is already booming; In 2012 and 2013, more than 90,000 Americans legally visited Cuba, according to the New York Times — and there's a good chance many more have visited illegally.
    But it's complicated to travel there: Travelers currently need special visas or are required to travel with set tour groups, and there are no direct commercial flights between the US and Cuba. 
    All of that will likely change soon. 
    Senior Obama administration officials announced in a press conference call with reporters on Wednesday plans to lift many of its existing travel restrictions. While all of the details have not yet been made clear, an official said the change will include a "number of steps to significantly increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.Officials also noted that the eased travel restrictions would allow more Americans who qualify under the current license program to visit Cuba.
    While it's not technically illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba, most are prohibited from spending any money there. These new measures would allow visitors to be able to purchase "$400 of general goods and up to $100 of alcohol and tobacco products that can include cigars" while in Cuba. 
    We're still waiting for more information on the ease of these travel restrictions, but it's clear that more Americans will be traveling to Cuba very soon.

    • General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in the following existing categories: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines. 
    • Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of such services. 
    • The policy changes make it easier for Americans to provide business training for private Cuban businesses and small farmers and provide other support for the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector.  Additional options for promoting the growth of entrepreneurship and the private sector in Cuba will be explored.

    Credit cards
    For the first time, credit and debit cards issued by U.S. banks will work in Cuba. American travelers to the island now have been forced to either carry large amounts of cash with them or acquire a credit card from a bank in another country.
    Cigars and rum
    Americans traveling to Cuba will be allowed to bring back a small amount of now-banned cigars and rum. The new provisions allow Americans to bring back up to $400 worth of Cuban goods, of which only $100 can be alcohol and tobacco.
    Americans will now be able to send $2,000 per quarter – up from $500 – to people in Cuba. Licenses that had been required for Americans sending cash to the island will no longer be required.
    The Cuban Internet
    Almost no ordinary Cubans have access to the Internet. Very slow web access is available at tourist hotels. The new rules allow U.S. companies to export telecommunications equipment to build a broader Internet infrastructure. At the same time, U.S. officials said, the Cuban government agreed to allow its citizens better access to the web.
    Obama's action marked an abrupt use of U.S. executive authority. However, he cannot unilaterally end the longstanding U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, which was passed by Congress and would require action from lawmakers to overturn.
    Wednesday's announcements followed more than a year of secret talks between the U.S. and Cuba, including clandestine meetings in Canada and the Vatican and personal involvement from Pope Francis. The re-establishment of diplomatic ties was accompanied by Cuba's release of American Alan Gross and the swap of a U.S. spy held in Cuba for three Cubans jailed in Florida.
    In a statement, the Vatican said Pope Francis "wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history."