On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced a major easing of travel and economic restrictions against Cuba as a result of landmark deal between the United States and Cuba.  In his remarks, President Obama announced a number of measures which seek to “end an outdated approach . . .” and  “chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and . . . further engage and empower the Cuban people.”

While only Congress can formally overturn the U.S. embargo which has been in place since 1961, the White House has taken some action within its executive powers to liberalize trade and travel to Cuba.  Key components of the Administration’s updated policy approach include the following:

  • Re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba and engagement on matters of mutual concern that advance U.S. national interests, such as migration, counternarcotics, environmental protection and human trafficking.
  • Expansion of travel under general licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in the following 12 existing categories: (1) family visits, (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations, (3) journalistic activity, (4) professional research and professional meetings, (5) educational activities, (6) religious activities, (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions, (8) support for the Cuban people, (9) humanitarian projects, (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes, (11) exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials, and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.  Travelers in these 12 categories will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba
  • Increase in Remittance levels by U.S. persons to Cuban nationals (except certain officials of the government or the Communist party) from $500 to $2,000 per quarter.  Also, donative remittances for humanitarian projects in Cuba and support for the development of private businesses in Cuba will no longer require a specific license.
  • Expansion of authorized commercial sales and exports from the United States to Cuba which includes certain building materials for private residential construction, goods for use by private sector Cuban entrepreneurs and agricultural equipment for small farmers.  Additionally, the commercial export of certain items and equipment that will contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people in the United States and the rest of the world will be authorized, including commercial sale of certain consumer communications devices, related software, applications, hardware, services and items to establish and update communications-related systems in Cuba.
  • Authorization for U.S. travelers to Cuba to import $400 worth of goods, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined.
  • Authorization for U.S. financial institutions to open correspondent accounts at Cuban financial institutions to facilitate the processing of authorized transactions.  U.S. credit and debit cards will be permitted for use by travelers in Cuba and the regulatory definition of “cash in advance” will be revised to specify that it means “cash before transfer of title” to provide more efficient financing of authorized trade with Cuba.
  • Easing of Cuba sanctions in third countries – U.S.-owned or controlled entities in third countries will be authorized under general licenses to provide services to and engage in financial transactions with Cuban individuals in third countries.  Further, the U.S. bank accounts of Cuban nationals who have relocated outside of Cuba will be unblocked, U.S. persons will be authorized to participate in third country professional meetings and conferences related to Cuba and foreign vessels will be allowed to enter the United States after engaging in certain humanitarian trade with Cuba.
  • Review of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism – The Secretary of State will immediately commence a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and will report back to the President within six months.