- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Obama administration announced sweeping measures Thursday that will ease sanctions against Cuba, opening up the Communist-ruled country to expanded travel and trade by Americans.

The 54-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba will remain in place, but the rules from the Commerce and Treasury departments that go into effect Friday will allow more trade in the areas of agriculture and telecommunications. Although tourism by Americans still is officially prohibited, the new regulations also will enable more U.S. residents to travel to the island without first obtaining a license.

The announcement “takes us one step closer to replacing out-of-date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people,” said Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

The measures follow Mr. Obama’s announcement on Dec. 17 that he and Cuban President Raul Castro had agreed to restore diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961.

Congressional critics of Mr. Obama’s actions said the Cuban regime should not be rewarded for its human rights abuses and repressive policies.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a Cuban-American, called the announcement “a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against U.S. national interests.”

“Given existing U.S. laws about our Cuba policy, this slew of regulations leave at least one major question President Obama and his administration have failed to answer so far: What legal authority does he have to enrich the Castro regime in these ways?” Mr. Rubio said in a statement.

Mr. Rubio wrote to Mr. Lew to ask how the new policy would be implemented without violating current law “and without increasing the moral and financial risk to the American taxpayer and financial system of doing business through Cuba’s government-controlled financial system.”

“While those questions remain unanswered, one thing that’s become even more crystal clear today is that this one-sided deal is enriching a tyrant and his regime at the expense of U.S. national interests and the Cuban people,” Mr. Rubio said.

Administration officials said the new rules are also aimed at supporting the Cuban people in three areas: improving living conditions and supporting independent economic activity; strengthening civil society; and improving communications.

A senior administration official said the new rules will gradually result in “empowering average Cubans” through increased contacts with Americans and greater access to U.S. goods and services. But the official said “most imports and exports … will remain prohibited.”

Republican lawmakers say they will not allow Mr. Obama to lift the embargo entirely.

The new regulations will allow Americans to travel to Cuba for reasons including family visits, education and religion, without first obtaining a special license from the U.S. government. Travelers will be allowed to bring back to the U.S. up to $400 worth of goods, including up to $100 of Cuba’s highly prized cigars.

Americans will now be able to send up to $8,000 to Cubans per year, up from $2,000 previously. They will also be able to use credit and debit cards in Cuba.

The announcement was made after U.S. officials said Cuba had fulfilled its promise to free 53 political prisoners.

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