By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) – President Barack Obama on Friday moved to ease more economic sanctions on Cuba.
The regulatory loosening will primarily affect trade between the Cold War foes, but will also include scientific and medical research, and for the first time in the post-embargo era, allow Cuban pharmaceuticals vetted by the Food and Drug Administration to reach U.S. consumers.
The changes mark the latest step forward as the two nations work toward normalizing relations - a process that begun in December 2014.
“Challenges remain – and very real differences between our governments persist on issues of democracy and human rights – but I believe that engagement is the best way to address those differences and make progress on behalf of our interests and values,” Obama said in announcing the changes.
Cuban consumers will now be able to purchase U.S. consumer goods online for personal use, and U.S. firms will be able to build Cuban infrastructure for humanitarian purposes, the Treasury and Commerce departments said in a joint statement.
A senior administration official speaking to reporters on condition that he not be named, acknowledged that the current government is working to make permanent changes to the U.S.-Cuba relationship and called on Congress to lift the decades-old embargo, which only it can do.
“We are doing everything we can to make these changes irreversible by raising the costs for anyone who would seek to turn back the clock,” he said.
“This debate has largely been settled among the public. It’s time for Congress to follow suit and do its part,” he added.
For some, the most dramatic aspect of Friday’s announcement will be the U.S.’s lifting of a $100 cap on travelers brining in Cuban mainstays -- rum and cigars.
Americans will now be able to bring back up to 100 cigars, which can individually fetch as much as $100 stateside, and multiple bottles of Cuba’s hallmark spirit. That now falls in line with regulations on alcohol and tobacco brought back to U.S. shores from other countries.
Other changes include allowing U.S. nationals to provide civil aviation safety services to Cubans, opening authorization for grants related to scientific research and religious activities and, allowing Americans in Cuba working on joint medical research to open and maintain a Cuban bank account.
The changes will go into effect when they are published Monday in the federal register – the government’s journal that contains U.S. policies and notices.