World

U.S. already engaging Cuba on many fronts to strengthen ties

U.S. President Barack Obama, who is embarking on a historic trip to Cuba, has been able to foster economic ties with the island nation in many ways, even though the U.S. has not officially lifted its trade embargo imposed in 1959.

Several measures have softened trade embargo, even though only the U.S. Congress can totally lift it

U.S. President Barack Obama toured Old Havana on Sunday. (CBC)

U.S. President Barack Obama aims to use his historic trip to Cuba starting Sunday to further his bid to restore ties after a half-century of acrimony.

Though his visit will be one of the most visible symbols of the new approach, Obama has been rolling back restrictions on Cuba, punching hole after hole in the U.S. trade embargo.

Here are several things the Obama administration has done to increase engagement with Cuba:

  • Loosened travel restrictions to allow Americans to go independently on educational, "people-to-people" trips instead of in organized groups. A formal tourism ban remains.
  • Eliminated a ban on Cuban financial transactions going through U.S. banks, which effectively had cut off Cuba from the global banking system.
  • Allowed Cuban citizens to open U.S. bank accounts and use them to send remittances back home.

Travel restrictions eased

  • Removed Cuba from the U.S. list of countries with inadequate port security, making it easier for ships to travel between the two countries.
  • Approved "general licenses" for U.S. travel to Cuba, meaning Americans traveling for certain authorized reasons don't have to apply for permission in advance.
  • Started restoring direct mail service. The first flight left the U.S. just before Obama's trip as part of a pilot project.
  • Authorized some U.S. cruise lines to sail to Cuba. They're waiting for Cuban approval.
  • Approved the first ferry service between the U.S. and Cuba.

Commercial flights

  • Struck an agreement to restore commercial flights. The Transportation Department will soon award the first flight routes.
  • Authorized exports of badly needed goods ranging from constructions materials to tractor parts, though no such trade has begun.
  • Approved the first U.S. factory in Cuba since the 1959 revolution. The assembly plant will build small tractors.
  • Allowed Cuban citizens to start earning salaries in the United States without having to start the immigration process, as long as they don't pay special taxes in Cuba.

Embassies reopened

  • Reopened the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Cuba also reopened its embassy in Washington.
  • Released three Cubans jailed in the U.S. Cuba released American Alan Gross at the same time.
  • Sat down with Cuban President Raul Castro in Panama in the first face-to-face meeting between a U.S. and Cuban leader in decades.
  • Started high-level exchanges and visits between U.S. and Cuban officials.

Remittances increased

  • Increased the amount people in the U.S. can send Cubans from $500 to $2,000 every three months. Earlier, Obama removed a $1,200 annual cap on remittances.
  • Permitted American travelers to return with up to $400 of merchandise, including tobacco and alcohol products worth no more than $100 combined.
  • Removed Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
  • Authorized the commercial export of some communications and internet devices including software, hardware and services.
  • Urged Congress repeatedly but unsuccessfully to lift the U.S. trade embargo.
  • Allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans, before the U.S. and Cuba announced plans to normalize relations.
  • Given San Francisco-based online lodging service Airbnb a special license allowing travelers from around the world to book stays in private homes in Cuba.

Obama first announced in late 2014 some of the steps his administration would take to normalize full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, stands with Cuba's President Raul Castro before a bilateral meeting at the United Nations headquarters on Sept. 29, 2015. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Obama first announced in late 2014 some of the steps his administration would take to normalize full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

He also said he wanted the U.S. to ease sanctions imposed against Cuba in 1959.

However, only the U.S. Congress has the authority to totally lift the trade embargo. And, with election season in high gear, it appears any progress on passing bills to amend or repeal the embargo will not be made any time soon.

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