Obama’s Cuba plan hinges on regulation

The scope of President Obama’s move to relax Cuban travel and business restrictions hinges largely on the strength of regulations required under the action, according to advocates of improved relations with the nation.

The policy shift requires the Treasury and Commerce departments to draw up revised rules governing exports, banking and travel between the two countries — and groups wasted little time in pressing regulators to act forcefully.

“President Obama has said very clearly that he wants them to be bold and big,” said Mavis Anderson, a senior associate with the Latin America Working Group.

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“The president was clear that these are his wishes and this is what he’s directing his administration to do,” she added. “He wants it to be easy and accessible for people to travel to Cuba, trade and import goods.”

But past efforts to ease passage between the United States and Cuba via administrative action have fizzled, proponents of relaxed restrictions said.

Obama has supported efforts to make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba through People-to-People programs, but Anderson said the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) made a bureaucratic mess of applying and renewing licenses.

“It’s important how the regulations are written,” she said. “NGOs [non-government organizations] like ours and others working on Cuban policy will be looking at the rules to ensure the president’s wishes are carried out.”

Treasury and Commerce are expected to revise and reissue final regulations regarding travel and exports to Cuba next month, according to a senior Obama administration official.

Commerce is tasked with changing the rules to allow cellphones, laptops and routers to be exported to Cuba for commercial sale and create a general license to export supplies, equipment and tools for private sector construction and agriculture.

The Treasury Department is expected to make changes to allow banks to set up corresponding accounts in Cuba, and give U.S. visitors the ability to use their credit and debit cards in the country. The agency also plans to increase the amount of money Americans are allowed to donate to humanitarian projects from $500 to $2,000 a quarter.

The eased travel restrictions could come via the creation of a general license for the 12 categories of authorized travel now licensed individually.

“If they make a general travel license, you will be able to go to the airport, sign up for your own trip and sign an affidavit that says you're traveling to the country legally,” said Marc Hanson, senior associate for Cuba with the Washington Office on Latin America.

“It’ll be up to the Treasury Department and OFAC to investigate you if they believe you’re traveling illegally, but they won’t do that. They won’t waste their time.”

Still, the all-important details have yet to be hammered out.

“At the end of the day, we have to wait for the rules to be written,” Hanson said.

And while Latin American groups applauded the president for his actions Wednesday, they said there is still more to do before the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba can ever be considered normal.

Luis Rumbaut, a spokesman for the Cuban American Alliance, called on Congress to take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, amend the Trading with the Enemy Act and overturn the Helms-Burton Act, which strengthens and continues the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

“We as an organization are immensely proud of what the president has done and hope this will lead to further improvements between the two nations,” he said, “but we are realistic and willing to point out that there’s still a long road that has to be traveled.”