Administration moves to re-establish relations with Cuba, ease travel restrictions

22 Jan 15


The Obama administration has taken steps in recent days to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and to ease travel restrictions for Americans wishing to travel to the island nation.

The actions follow the Dec. 17 announcement that the U.S. would work to normalize relations with Cuba, open an embassy in Havana and take steps toward easing travel and business restrictions on Americans..

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date,” Obama said in his State of the Union address Jan. 20. “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson is currently in Cuba to discuss next steps, including embassy operations, staffing, and visa processing.

Travelers should be aware that most forms of trade with Cuba are still illegal, and general tourism is also off limits.

However, several changes took effect last week, making it easier for travelers in 12 categories to visit Cuba. The 12 categories are: family visits; government business; journalistic endeavors; professional meetings or research; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, exhibitions or competitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations and research or educational institutions; exportation or importation of information; and certain authorized export transactions. These changes were implemented Jan. 16 in published guidelines by the U.S. Treasury Department and Commerce Department.

Travel that was previously authorized only by “specific license” is now authorized by “general license,” meaning people can travel to Cuba provided they meet conditions specified in government regulations covering their type of travel. If travelers meet these conditions, they do not need to request permission to travel ahead of time.

Commercial airlines will be able to establish regular flights to Cuba. Travelers will be allowed to use credit or debit cards in Cuba and they will be permitted to import up to $400 worth of goods (including $100 of alcohol or tobacco) for personal use.

The changes announced last week also touch on business transactions with Cuban nationals, financial services and small business development, among other areas.

U.S. companies, including banks, can now provide goods and services to Cuban nationals located outside of Cuba, so long as their transactions do not involve exportation of goods or services from Cuba. In order to process authorized transactions, U.S. banks and other depositories will be able to open “correspondent accounts” with Cuban banks and other financial institutions. The regulations also allow for certain types of micro-financing projects and entrepreneurial and business training.

BAL Analysis: The Obama administration’s move toward normalizing relations with Cuba is a historic development. However, the Cuban trade embargo has not been lifted and many forms of trade and general tourism are still prohibited. Talks are underway to reestablish diplomatic relations, and new Treasury and Commerce regulations make it easier to travel to Cuba for those who fall into any of the 12 categories listed above. The regulations also expand banking and financial service opportunities and small-business development. However, people considering traveling to Cuba or doing business there should be extremely careful that their activity is legal. Contact a BAL attorney if you have any questions about what activity is – or is not – permissible.

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