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U.S. Eases Sanctions Against Cuba Ahead Of Obama's Landmark Visit

Refrigerator magnets, including images of President Obama, are displayed for sale in a tourist shop at a market in Havana on Monday. i

Refrigerator magnets, including images of President Obama, are displayed for sale in a tourist shop at a market in Havana on Monday. Ramon Espinosa/AP hide caption

toggle caption Ramon Espinosa/AP
Refrigerator magnets, including images of President Obama, are displayed for sale in a tourist shop at a market in Havana on Monday.

Refrigerator magnets, including images of President Obama, are displayed for sale in a tourist shop at a market in Havana on Monday.

Ramon Espinosa/AP

Ahead of President Obama's landmark trip to Cuba later this month, the U.S. is loosening sanctions regulations against Cuba.

The changes make it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to the island and allow nonimmigrant Cubans who are in the U.S legally to earn salaries.

"Normalization means not just normalization between governments, it means normalization of our relationship with the Cuban people. And that is what this change really aims to advance," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters as he announced the changes.

As NPR's Scott Horsley tells our Newscast unit, "The congressional embargo against Cuba is still in place, but President Obama continues to chip away at it."

The U.S. still bans its citizens from travel to Cuba as tourists. To travel to Cuba legally, the reason for the trip must fall under one of 12 categories, including family visits, journalism and religious activities.

But an amendment Tuesday allows independent "person-to-person-educational exchange," meaning that a U.S. citizen can travel to Cuba to engage "in a full time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba, " the Treasury says. Now travelers can do this on an individual basis; before, they had to travel with an organization.

This is designed to promote engagement, Rhodes says. He adds: "The bottom line is, we believe that's the best way to connect the Cuban people to the wider world."

Additionally, new regulations that permit nonimmigrant Cubans to earn salaries in the U.S. include "Cuban athletes, artists, performers, and others who obtain the requisite visas will be able to travel to the United States and earn salaries and stipends in excess of basic living expenses."

Revised banking regulations allow money from Cuba and Cubans to pass from a foreign country through U.S. banking institutions and then outside again, and vice versa, "where neither the originator nor the beneficiary is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction," according to the Treasury. It also allows U.S. banks to process dollars "presented indirectly by Cuban financial institutions."

And U.S. banks will be able to open accounts for Cuban nationals based in Cuba "to receive payments in the United States for authorized or exempt transactions and to remit such payments back to Cuba."

Rhodes explains the rationale behind the new financial regulations:

"While there are legislative restrictions, we did want to find ways consistent with our own interests to facilitate the ability for there to be international transactions that make use of the dollar. This had been, in many ways, an impediment on the ability of the Cuban economy to open up to international commerce. ... We are making it easier for the Cuban economy to open up to the global economy, and to have greater connectivity with the global economy. And we believe that provides important incentives for the Cuban government to continue to evolve its own economic model."

The new regulations also ease some restrictions on trade and commerce.

As the U.S. continues to loosen the restrictions on Cuba, Rhodes reiterated the Obama administration's stance: "At a certain point, the embargo is, I think, going to be seen as an impediment to what the Cuban people want and what frankly we would want to see transpire going forward in Cuba."

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