WASHINGTON — Starting Friday, traveling to Cuba will be easier than it has been for Americans for more than a half-century, as the US government opens the door to contact between neighbors that have been estranged longer than most of their citizens have been alive.
The Obama administration announced regulations Thursday that take effect Friday, easing decades-old restrictions on travel, business, and remittances, following up President Obama’s announcement last month that he planned to resume normal diplomatic relations with Havana.
Americans will now be allowed to travel to Cuba for any of a dozen specific reasons without first obtaining a special license from the government. Airlines and travel agents will be allowed to provide service to Cuba without a specific license. And travelers will be permitted to use credit cards and spend money while in the country and bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including up to $100 in alcohol or tobacco.
The new regulations will also make it easier for US telecommunications providers and financial institutions to do business with Cuba. Americans will be allowed to send more money to Cubans, up to $2,000 every three months instead of the current $500.
While the new rules do not formally allow basic tourism, they are written in a way that could have that effect.
“This is basically the end of the travel ban once they work out the kinks,” said Julia E. Sweig, a longtime scholar and author on Cuba.
“At first glance the new regulations look to allow most Americans to travel to Cuba without having to ask for permission in advance and by booking air travel directly rather than through authorized groups and agencies,” she said. “Next move will have to be a civil aviation agreement to allow commercial, not just charter, air travel.”
Administration officials said the new approach would benefit Cubans as well.
“These changes will have a direct impact in further engaging and empowering the Cuban people, promoting positive change for Cuba’s citizens,” said Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, whose department oversees sanctions policy.
“By increasing travel, commerce, communications, and private business development between the United States and Cuba, the United States can help the Cuban people determine their own future,” he added.
The administration moved to ease the restrictions after obtaining confirmation that 53 incarcerated people it deemed political prisoners had been released in accordance with the agreement Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba struck last month. Cuba has also released an American held prisoner for years, Alan P. Gross, and a Cuban who had worked as a spy for the United States. Obama released three Cuban spies who had been held for years and were considered folk heroes in Havana.
The broader trade embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower after the Cuban revolution that brought Castro’s brother Fidel to power will remain in place unless Congress decides to lift it, as Obama has urged it to do. But the moves announced Thursday go further than any president has gone in 50 years to facilitate travel and trade with Cuba.
Critics, led by Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, have argued that Obama is playing into the hands of the Castro brothers by relaxing sanctions without obtaining any meaningful commitment to change on their part. Cuba remains one of the most repressive countries in the world, according to human rights groups and the State Department, which have cataloged the many ways freedom is restricted on the island nation.
“This is 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 in Latin America and beyond,” Rubio said Thursday.
Under previous rules, Americans wanting to travel legally to Cuba had to justify their trips under 12 categories and then in some cases obtain a specific license from the Treasury Department to do so.
Among those categories are family visits; journalistic, religious, educational, professional, and humanitarian activities; artistic or sports performances; and “support for the Cuban people.” Private firms arranged “people to people” programs to allow Americans to travel under those categories.
Under the new regulations, Americans will not need licenses to certify that they fit those categories. As a practical matter, experts say that will make it possible for many more Americans to travel without having to use such firms or satisfy government agents about the specific purpose of their visits. Moreover, travelers will be allowed to spend as much money as they want on travel-related expenses while in Cuba, which was previously limited.