Obama's decision comes after Cuba freed U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross and a U.S. intelligence asset while the United States released three convicted Cuban spies.
The president in a speech yesterday, announced changes to U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Cuba at the height of the Cold War following Fidel Castro's revolution, and order a review of Cuba's place on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro held a more than 45-minute telephone call on Tuesday to seal the mutual agreement, which officials on both sides hashed out over 18 months of secret talks hosted by Canada and the Vatican. American officials credited Pope Francis for pushing the process along with an unusual personal appeal in writing to both leaders. Fidel Castro was not a part of the negotiations, top U.S. officials told reporters.
The White House cannot completely lift the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba -- that will require action by Congress, where bipartisan coalitions both support and oppose such a historic shift. But administration officials said the president would unveil executive actions to ease restrictions on trips by U.S. citizens to Cuba. Those travelers will also be able to buy Cuban goods for personal use, including up to $100 in alcohol or tobacco products, meaning that at least some Americans will be able to bring home some of the island's famous rum and iconic cigars.
“We cannot completely lift the travel ban" without Congress, one official said on a conference call organized by the White House. "We are authorizing as much travel as we possibly can within the constraints of the legislation.”
In practice, that will mean granting travel licenses to all travelers in categories that Congress has already designated as permitted to go to Cuba. Those include family visits, official U.S. government travel, journalism, professional research or meetings, educational exchanges, religious activities, public performances (including sporting events), humanitarian work, and others.
Obama will also expand financial connections between the United States and Cuba, notably raising the amount of "remittances" -- essentially, tranfers of cash from Cuban-Americans to relatives in Cuba -- allowed from $500 every three months to $2,000.
The scope of the policy shift was a surprise, but the Obama Administration had previewed the potential change when longtime Obama foreign policy aide Antony Blinken testified in a Senate hearing in November on his confirmation to the number-two job at the State Department. Blinken was confirmed Tuesday.
It was not clear whether Obama's much-discussed December 2013 handshake wtih Raúl Castroat a memorial service for the late South African leader Nelson Mandela was part of the warming relations.
Gross had been sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in prison in connection with an effort to create a communications network outside Cuban government control. Cuba freed him on humanitarian grounds as part of a broader deal that saw each side free intelligence assets.
The United States and Cuba have had no embassies -- or ambassadors -- since 1961. Each side has an "interests section" housed in another country's embassy.
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