WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it would allow individuals to travel to Cuba for “people to people” educational trips and lift limits on the use of US dollars in transactions with Cuba.
The actions wipe away stiff restrictions on travel and commerce as President Obama prepares to make a trip to Havana next week.
They are some of the most significant regulatory changes the Treasury and the Department of Commerce have made to carry out the move toward normalization that Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba announced in December 2014.
The steps come days before Obama will land in Cuba, the first visit by a sitting US president in 88 years and a marquee element of his foreign policy.
While Americans are permitted to make educational visits to Cuba in tour groups, a tourism ban has barred individuals from traveling there under most circumstances.
Under Tuesday’s revisions, Americans who plan a trip with a full schedule of educational exchange activities, including interacting with the Cuban people, will for the first time in decades be able to travel on their own to Cuba without special permission from the US government.
The change punctures a major element of the US embargo against Cuba, which remains in effect even though Obama has called repeatedly for its repeal, but the Republican-led Congress has shown little interest in taking action.
While tourism is still barred by statute, the new rules amount to permission for any American who wants to travel to Cuba to plan an educational sojourn there, as long as they keep records of their activities for five years.
It follows an agreement last month between US and Cuban officials to restore direct commercial flights.
“We have enormous confidence in the American people as ambassadors for the things that we care about,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and his point man on opening relations with Cuba.
“There’s no shortage of opportunities for Americans to build that type of meaningful schedule of people-to-people engagement while they go to Cuba,’’ Rhodes said. “We believe that’s the best way to connect the Cuban people with the wider world.”
Several Republican lawmakers disagreed.
“These unilateral actions will further prop up a Communist regime in Cuba that has a long record of brutal human rights abuses,” said Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “While the Castros and their agents are given access to the US financial system, the suffering Cuban people will still get paid in funny money — if at all.”
John Caulfield, who served as the chief of the US mission in Cuba from 2011 to 2014, said the change would expose Americans to a more authentic experience than they have been able to get on organized tours.
Many of the existing tours have evolved into a formulaic itinerary that Cuban state-run companies largely control, involving a relatively closed circle of architects, performers, economists, and organic farmers who cycle through US tour groups, often receiving money for the visits.
“In our diligence to make sure people were doing people-to-people, we allowed them to fall into the trap of the Cuban propaganda machine,” Caulfield said. “Basically it was the Potemkin tour of Cuba, where the Cubans could exert control.
“This allows a lot more flexibility for the travelers,” he said.
The rules announced Tuesday also will allow Cuban citizens to earn a salary in the United States and make it easier for dollars to be used in financial transactions with US banks, something government officials in Havana have long sought.
The changes reflect a major behind-the-scenes effort by US and Cuban officials to strike a series of deals before Obama’s visit to ensure that the trip is seen as a success.
Removing these barriers “is recognition that the Cuban people, particularly the growing number of Cubans who run their own small businesses, benefit when Americans travel to the island,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who supports lifting the embargo and will make the trip with Obama.
“Increased travel by Americans will lead to more Cuban entrepreneurs who are less dependent on the Cuban government,’’ he said.