15 Oct 2016

US-Cuba restrictions go up in smoke

10:51 am on 15 October 2016

Americans travelling to Cuba will be allowed to bring home more of the communist island's coveted cigars and rum under new measures announced by the US on Friday to further ease trade, travel and financial restrictions that have been in place for decades.

A statue of Fidel Castro holding a cigar outside a Cuban cigar store. Bringing cigars and rum from Cuba to the United States is now allowed.

A statue of Fidel Castro holding a cigar outside a Cuban cigar store. Bringing cigars and rum from Cuba to the United States is now allowed. Photo: AFP

The steps were part of US President Barack Obama's efforts to make his re-establishment of relations with Cuba "irreversible" by the time he left office in January.

The latest in a series of new rules since the two former Cold War foes began normalising relations in 2014 will allow Cubans to buy certain US consumer goods online, open the door for Cuban pharmaceutical companies to do business in the United States and let Cubans and Americans engage in joint medical research.

For American travellers, the biggest change will be the removal of limits on the amount of rum and cigars they can pack in their luggage for personal use.

The administration partially lifted the ban in 2015, allowing Americans to bring back $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco products. Now they can return with as much as they want as long as they pay duties and taxes.

"You can now celebrate with Cuban rum and Cuban cigars," US National Security Adviser Susan Rice quipped as she laid out the policy changes in a speech to a Washington think tank.

US law still bans general tourism to Cuba, but the administration has used previous regulatory packages to make it easier for Americans to visit the island under 12 officially authorised categories.

The latest measures are part of an executive order on Cuba through which Mr Obama was seeking to sidestep the Republican-controlled Congress, which has resisted his call to lift Washington's economic embargo after more than 50 years.

Republican critics said Mr Obama was making too many concessions to Cuba for too little in return, especially on human rights issues.

"After two years of President Obama's Cuba policy, the Castro regime has made out like bandits," said US Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American lawmaker from Florida who for a time was part of the Republican race to be nominated for the presidency.

The latest measures also allow Cuban pharmaceutical companies to apply for US regulatory approval, let US firms improve Cuban infrastructure for humanitarian purposes and authorise them to provide safety-related aircraft services in Cuba, where US airlines are beginning regularly scheduled flights.

Washington was also lifting a prohibition on foreign ships from entering a US port to load or unload cargo for 180 days after calling on a Cuban port, according to a joint statement from US treasury and commerce departments.

"Today, I approved a Presidential Policy Directive that takes another major step forward in our efforts to normalise relations with Cuba," Mr Obama said in a statement.

His goal was to "make our opening to Cuba irreversible," he said.

Less than a month before the 8 November presidential election, a senior US official said the administration wanted to lock in benefits from the new Cuba policy for US citizens and companies to the extent that it would be impossible for any future president to "turn back the clock".

The latest package, the administration's sixth, was likely to be the "last significant tranche of changes" during Mr Obama's tenure, the senior official, who asked not to be named, said.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton backed the policy of rapprochement with Havana. Republican Donald Trump has vowed to roll back Mr Obama's executive actions.

In March, Mr Obama made the first visit to Havana by a US president in 88 years. His trip was made possible by his breakthrough agreement with Cuban President Raul Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba's 1959 revolution.

Since the opening, Mr Obama has repeatedly used his executive powers to relax trade and travel restrictions, while pushing Cuba to accelerate market-style reforms and boost political and economic freedom.

"The changes announced to Cuba regulations are, by definition, significant because they are new," said US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council president John Kavulich.

"Whether they will be relevant depends upon the government of Cuba's willingness to permit United States companies and institutions to engage."

"This new directive consolidates and builds upon the changes we've already made," Mr Obama said. He added, however, that "challenges remain - and very real differences between our governments persist on issues of democracy and human rights".

At the same time, the US embargo against Cuba has remained in place, a major irritant in relations. Only Congress can lift the embargo, and the Republican leadership is not expected to allow such a move anytime soon.

- Reuters

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