U.S. continues to chip at embargo by easing Cuban travel and banking
The new regulations come before President Obama’s March 20-22 trip to Cuba
Individual travelers can now plan and make their own people-to-people trips
New rules could ease banks’ reluctance to engage in transactions with Cuba
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
Just days before President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, the
administration hopes a new set of U.S. regulations easing travel and
banking restrictions for Cuba will nudge Havana toward making its own
changes to encourage more commerce between the former adversaries.
The new rules that were announced Tuesday continue to chip away at the
embargo by allowing individuals to travel to the island on their own
people-to-people trips and permitting the use of U.S. dollars in more
financial transactions with Cuba.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said the United States
would continue to urge the Cuban government to make changes in its
economic model to make it easier to do business. The policy shift toward
Cuba, he said, also is in “America’s national interest.”
But analysts said a business relationship with Cuba won’t fully develop
until the U.S. embargo is lifted.
“At the end of the day these are tweaks and taking chips away from a
giant wall,” said Andy Fernandez, leader of Holland & Knight’s Cuba
Action Team. “And the barriers on the Cuban side still exist.”
Among changes Cuba could make to increase the impact of the new U.S.
rules, said Rhodes, would be eliminating the 10 percent penalty charge
on converting U.S. dollars to Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) and
allowing foreign firms operating in Cuba to directly hire their Cuban
All of the policy changes since the United States and Cuba announced
they were working toward normalizing relations on Dec. 17, 2014 are
aimed at the United States being better able to support engagement with
the Cuban people and to “build bridges between our two countries,” said
Rhodes, one of the architects of the new Cuba policy.
“These regulations help — but not yet to the extent that you will see
things really open up in Cuba,” said David Schwartz, chief executive of
the Florida International Bankers Association.
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said further easing
restrictions just before Obama’s Sunday through Tuesday visit to Cuba
only helps strengthen the Castro regime.
“Just in the past few days in Cuba, there has been increased repression
on the island and more arrests are being made in anticipation of the
president’s misguided visit,” she said. “U.S. policy must focus less on
easing our regulations and more on putting pressure on the Castro
brothers to unclench its fists, which oppress the Cuban people.”
The new regulations, the fifth round of changes in a little more than a
year, will take effect Wednesday.
? Individual travel — Americans on people-to-people educational tours
to the island used to have to travel in organized groups. Now they can
plan their own itineraries as long as they keep records for five years
showing they’ve engaged in a full-time schedule of educational exchanges.
It appears the record-keeping “will be on the honor system,” said
Fernandez, “but this is pushing the envelope on U.S. travel.”
Individual travelers can also make trips under the auspices of an
organization that sponsors people-to-people exchanges in which case the
burden of record-keeping falls to the sponsor.
“These changes, coupled with the arrangement recently announced by the
Departments of State and Transportation allowing up to 110 non-stop
flights daily between the United States and Cuba, will significantly
increase the ability of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba to directly
engage with the Cuban people,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
“We have enormous confidence in the American people to act as
ambassadors for the things we care about,” Rhodes said.
But Americans still aren’t allowed to go to Cuba to lounge on the beach.
“Travel for tourist activity remains prohibited by statue,” said Andrea
Gacki, acting deputy director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets
? Banking regulations — Treasury outlined a series of new banking
regulations that could ease bankers’ reluctance to engage with Cuba. The
new rules make it clear that U.S. financial institutions will be able to
process cash, travelers checks and other U.S. dollar-denominated
monetary instruments indirectly presented by Cuban financial institutions.
Correspondent accounts at third-country financial institutions also may
be denominated in U.S. dollars, and U.S. banks will be allowed to open
and maintain bank accounts for Cuban citizens residing in Cuba who
receive payments in the United States for authorized transactions and
then send those payments to Cuba. This could be a boon to Cuban authors
and artists, for example, who legally sell their work in the United States.
Funds may also be transferred from a bank outside the United States,
pass through U.S. financial institutions and then be transferred to a
bank outside the United States without worry about the stiff penalties
of the past.
Decriminalizing the use of U.S. dollars in third-party transactions with
Cuba has been a big issue for financial institutions that have been
subject to billions of dollars in U.S. fines over the years. Rhodes said
previous U.S. restrictions had “shut Cuba out from parts of the
international financial community.”
As more Americans travel to Cuba, these U.S. visitors “will be dropping
more and more dollars in Cuba and Cuba wants to be able to spend them,”
said Augusto Maxwell, a Miami attorney who heads Akerman’s Cuba practice.
“Now they’re afraid of spending these dollars around the world because
whenever they’re routed to a U.S. financial institution, the banks have
seized them,” he said. With the rule change, now Cubans and the Cuban
government “can use these dollars directly,” said Maxwell.
The changes also will “improve the speed, efficiency and oversight” of
U.S. financial transactions with Cuba, Gacki said.
? Hiring — U.S. companies can hire Cuban nationals, in a non-immigrant
status, to work or perform in the United States provided that no
additional payments are made to the Cuban government related to their
sponsorship or hiring. That means Cuban athletes, artists, performers
and others who obtain the necessary visas will be allowed to come to the
United States and earn salaries and stipends above their basic living
Major League Baseball is now in talks with Cuba about letting Cuban
players sign directly with MLB teams, rather than continuing their
practice of defecting.
? Business presence — Under previous rule changes, U.S. companies were
allowed to open offices and establish a physical presence in Cuba. In
the interest of providing better access to information, U.S. telecom
companies also were permitted to enter into partnerships with Cuban
Now companies providing mail, cargo, and transportation services are
among those that can have a business presence in Cuba — opening up the
possibility of a joint venture, franchise or other business relationship
with Cuban individuals or entities, said Fernandez.
? Cargo — Vessels and aircraft leaving the United States with cargo for
Cuba and for other destinations will now be able to call on Cuba and
continue on their routes to make further deliveries without applying for
a specific license.
? Exports — Now, U.S. companies can export or reexport items to Cuba to
establish and maintain their offices. The United States also will adopt
a policy of case-by-case review of U.S. exports and reexports to Cuban
entrepreneurs that would help the private sector export its own products.
? Grants and scholarships — Educational grants, scholarships and awards
may now be granted to Cubans.
“Today’s amendments build upon President Obama’s historic actions to
improve our country’s relationship with Cuba and its people,” said
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. “These steps not only expand
opportunities for economic engagement between the Cuban people and the
American business community, but will also improve the lives of millions
of Cuba’s citizens.”
When Obama arrives in Havana Sunday evening, he will be the first
sitting American president to visit the island in nearly 90 years.
“This is what historic change looks like,” said James Williams,
president of Engage Cuba, which supports normalized trade and travel
with Cuba. “The new regulations will speed up a process that is now all
but inevitable. And now it is up to Congress to do its job and support
the will and wishes of the majority of the American people by ending the
trade and travel ban with Cuba.”
Source: U.S. continues to chip at embargo by easing Cuban travel and
banking restrictions | Miami Herald –