On December 17 President Obama announced a plan to normalize relations with Cuba and open a US Embassy in Havana.  The President also asked Congress to reconsider the trade embargo with Cuba which has been in place since 1962.  Lifting the 50-year trade ban requires Congressional action, but bi-partisan resistance to lifting the embargo became quickly evident.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the administration’s plan to change the current U.S. relationship with Cuba.  McConnell said he defers to Senator Marco Rubio on the matter.  Senator Rubio said that “It’s absurd and it’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants.”

U.S. officials said Pope Francis was personally engaged in the process of normalizing relations between the US and Cuba.  Senior administration officials said President Obama spoke with Cuban leader Raul Castro for more than 45 minutes on Tuesday, the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the Department of Treasury issued the following advice:

How will OFAC implement the changes to the Cuba sanctions program announced by the President on December 17, 2014?  Are the changes effective immediately?

Response from OFAC:  OFAC will implement the Treasury-specific changes via amendments to its Cuban Assets Control Regulations.  The Department of Commerce will implement the remainder of the changes via amendments to its Export Administration Regulations.  OFAC expects to issue its regulatory amendments in the coming weeks.  None of the announced changes takes effect until the new regulations are issued.

President Obama plans to issue several Presidential Orders in next few weeks to:

Re-establish diplomatic relations Our diplomatic relations with Cuba were severed in January of 1961.  The President is immediately reopening discussions with Cuba and working to re-establish an embassy in Havana in the next coming months.  The U.S. will work with Cuba on matters of mutual concern that advance U.S. national interests, such as migration, counternarcotics, environmental protection, and trafficking in persons, among other issues.

More effectively empower the Cuban people by adjusting regulations The President is taking steps to improve travel and remittance policies that will further increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba, and enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people.

Facilitate an expansion of travel to Cuba With expanded travel, Americans will be able to help support the growth of civil society in Cuba more easily, and provide business training for private Cuban businesses and small farmers.  Americans will also be able to provide other support for the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector.

General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in 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, research, or educational institutions
  11. Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

Authorize expanded sales and exports of certain goods and services from the U.S. to Cuba The expansion will seek to empower the nascent Cuban private sector and make it easier for Cuban citizens to have access to certain lower-priced goods to improve their living standards and gain greater economic independence from the state.

Authorize American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba Licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined.

Initiate new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely Cuba has an Internet penetration of about five percent – one of the lowest rates in the world.  The cost of telecommunications in Cuba is exorbitantly high, while the services offered are extremely limited.  Now, telecommunications providers will be allowed to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and internet services.