Treasury eases restrictions on travel to Cuba ahead of Obama visit

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The Obama administration on Tuesday eased a number of major travel and banking restrictions on Cuba ahead of the president’s historic trip there on Sunday.

The policy changes make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba and eliminate barriers to using U.S. dollars in Cuban financial transactions. 

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The moves by the Treasury and Commerce Departments are some of the most significant changes yet to advance the new policy of openness toward Cuba announced by President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro in 2014. 

“Today’s steps build on the actions of the last 15 months as we continue to break down economic barriers, empower the Cuban people and advance their financial freedoms, and chart a new course in U.S.-Cuba relations,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a statement. 

Individuals will be able to travel to Cuba on “people-to-people” educational trips. 

Previously, only groups of people could make such visits. Coupled with direct commercial fights to the island expected to begin later this year, the new policy could allow many more Americans to visit the country. 

Cuban nationals working in the U.S., including athletes and artists, will be able to earn a salary or other financial compensation. Cubans will also be permitted to open accounts at American banks and use them to remit payments back home, the administration said. 

“We are building on this progress by facilitating travel for additional Americans looking to engage with Cubans; allowing Cuban citizens to earn a salary in the United States; and expanding access to the U.S. financial system as well as trade and commercial opportunities,” Lew said. 

While the moves make significant strides in cementing permanent U.S. business and travel links to Cuba, all Cold War-era restrictions can’t be lifted until Congress acts to eliminate the embargo. 

Obama conceded the embargo won’t fall during his presidency, but he predicted it would happen under his successor. 

“My strong prediction is that sometime in the next president's administration, whether they are a Democrat or a Republican, that the embargo in fact will be removed,” he said in an interview with CNN en Español that aired Monday.