Tag Archives: embargo

Limits lifted on bringing in Cuban rum, cigars

The Obama administration announced Friday that it is eliminating a $100 limit on the value of Cuban rum and cigars that American travelers can bring back from the island.

The administration is also lifting limits on cargo ship travel between the U.S. and Cuba and easing U.S. and Cuban researchers’ ability to conduct joint medical research. The measures are contained in a package of relatively small-scale regulatory changes meant to ease U.S. trade with Cuba.

The Obama administration has now made six sets of changes loosening the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba in the hopes that the normalization of relations with the island will not be reversed by a future administration. This round is expected to be the last before President Barack Obama leaves office.

Cuban rum and cigars will now be subject to the same duties as alcohol and tobacco from other countries, meaning most travelers will be able to bring back as many as 100 cigars and several bottles of rum. Because high-end Cuban cigars can sell for more than $100 apiece outside Cuba, every U.S. traveler can now legally bring back many thousands of dollars of Cuban products, potentially generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new annual revenue for the Cuban state.

The change does not mean that Cuban rum and cigars will be available for sale in the U.S. — the change is aimed at tobacco and alcohol brought home for personal use.

The previous limit restricted travelers to a combined value of $100 in rum and cigars, although enforcement of the limit notably declined after President Barack Obama declared detente with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.

The administration has described its policy goal as aimed at helping the Cuban people improve their lives by winning greater economic and political freedom from the single-party state.

“Challenges remain – and very real differences between our governments persist on issues of democracy and human rights – but I believe that engagement is the best way to address those differences and make progress on behalf of our interests and values,” Obama said in a statement announcing the changes.

Rum and cigar production is entirely government-run under Cuba’s centrally planned communist economy. While the first regulatory changes focused narrowly on helping Cuba’s growing private sector, Friday’s new rules are almost entirely aimed at similarly state-run industries including shipping and medical products.

The package of regulatory changes announced Friday also allows cargo ships to visit U.S. ports directly after docking in Cuba. They had been barred from U.S. ports for 180 days after visiting Cuba. Cuba blamed that measure for harming its ability to import and export and dampening hopes that a new military-run port in the city of Mariel could serve as a major link in the regional cargo shipping system.

A senior Obama administration official said the new regulations’ focus on Cuban state enterprise should not be interpreted as a shift away from helping ordinary Cubans.

“We have designed the policy very much to have the maximum benefit to the Cuban people, broadly, but in so doing we are not restricting engagement with the Cuban state. That has been clear since Dec. 17, 2014,” the official said in a conference call with reporters held on condition of anonymity. “The Cuban people continue to be at the center of everything we’re doing.”

More than 160,000 American travelers visited Cuba last year and that figure is expected to double this year. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visit family on the island each year and will also be able to take advantage of the new measure, which comes a month and a half before the restart of commercial flights to Havana after more than 50 years.

1st cruise from a US port in decades leaves Miami for Cuba

Passengers on May 1 set sail from Miami on a historic cruise to Cuba, the first in decades to depart from a U.S. seaport for the communist island nation.

Carnival Corp.’s 704-passenger Adonia left port on May 1 at 4:24 p.m., bound for Havana. Carnival’s Cuba cruises, operating under its Fathom brand, will also visit the ports of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba on the seven-day outing. Several Cuba-born passengers, among hundreds of others, were aboard, it said.

The cruise comes after Cuba loosened its policy banning Cuban-born people from arriving to the country by sea, a rule that threatened to stop the cruises from happening.

Restarting the cruises was an important element of a bid by President Barack Obama’s administration’s to increase tourism to Cuba after the Dec. 17, 2014, decision to restore diplomatic relations and move toward normalization.

The most recent such cruise, from another U.S. port, was in 1978.

When it first announced the cruises, Carnival said it would bar Cuban-born passengers due to the government’s policy. But the Cuban-American community in Miami complained and filed a discrimination lawsuit in response. After that, the company said it would only sail to Cuba if the policy changed, which Cuba did on April 22.

Carnival said the Adonia will cruise every other week from Miami to Cuba. Bookings will start at $1,800 per person and feature an array of cultural and educational activities, including Spanish lessons, Carnival’s website says.

Seventy-three-year-old passenger Rick Schneider told The Sun-Sentinel he had waited decades for the chance to make the journey. He bought a Cuban flag for the occasion, which he waved from the deck at protesters who opposed the cruises.

He said he once passed up taking a ferry trip to Cuba in 1957, adding “the time is now.”

The cruise is among the many changes in U.S.-Cuban relations since a thaw between the former Cold War foes began in late 2014. The thaw also led to a historic, two-day trip to Cuba in March by Obama, who met with Cuban counterpart Raul Castro and others.

The Cuban government says the shift in policy removes prohibitions enacted when Cuban exiles were launching attacks by sea after the first Cuban revolution.

On May 1, Arnold Donald, Carnival’s president and CEO, said the company worked and prepared to make the cruises a reality despite the challenges.

“Times of change often bring out emotions and clearly the histories here are very emotional for a number of people,” Donald told reporters.”

The Miami Herald reported that a boat carrying some activists protesting the trip to Cuba was nearby in Florida waters before the ship’s departure.

Mary Olive Reinhart, a retired parks service ranger, told the paper that she and some friends from the Philadelphia area were drawn to the voyage by the adventure of it all.

The Fathom brand said on its website that the trip was authorized under current people-to-people travel guidelines of the U.S. government and would include meetings with artists, musicians, business owners and families — along with Cuban shore excursions to traditional sites.

“It’s exciting to go places where we’re forbidden. For me, I want to be at home in the world — the whole world,” she added.

Hemingway’s home in Cuba to get $900,000 in U.S. improvements

A U.S. foundation will ship nearly $900,000 in supplies to build a state-of-the-art facility to preserve Ernest Hemingway’s books, letters and photos — the first major export of construction materials to Cuba since President Barack Obama loosened the trade embargo on the island.

The Boston-based Finca Vigia Foundation has been trying for years to help Cuba stop thousands of pages of documents from slowly disintegrating in the baking heat and dripping humidity of the sprawling home where the American writer lived and worked outside Havana from 1939 to 1960. Officials with Cuba’s National Cultural Heritage Council, which runs the Finca Vigia, have been enthusiastic about building a conservation laboratory but said they didn’t have the funds or supplies to do it.

High-quality building materials are virtually impossible to find throughout much of Cuba, with homeowners forced to buy paint and water pumps stolen from government agencies and pay overseas travelers to bring items as large as sinks and kitchen cabinets in their checked luggage. In state-run hardware stores, a request for an item as mundane as a box of screws can provoke peals of laughter from sales clerks.

The foundation’s proposal to send four shipping containers with as much as $862,000 of materials ranging from nuts and bolts to tools and roofing was approved by the U.S. government in May, after Obama created a series of exemptions to the embargo. The exceptions include permission for Americans to export supplies donated for the purpose of supporting the Cuban people in fields such as science, archaeology and historical preservation.

Cuban architects, engineers and workmen will use the American supplies and Cuban cement blocks and mortar to construct a 2,400-square-foot, two-story laboratory where thousands of photos, roughly 9,000 books and a huge number of letters to and from Hemingway can be treated and preserved.

“It will make a tremendous difference,” Mary-Jo Adams, executive director of the privately funded Finca Vigia Foundation, which was founded in 2003. “They’ll be able to be kept for decades, if not longer.”

TV home improvement expert Bob Vila, a Finca Vigia Foundation board member who is Cuban-American and speaks fluent Spanish, will help oversee the project, Adams said. The head of Cuba’s National Cultural Heritage Council told The Associated Press that she couldn’t make any immediate comment on the project.

The series of exemptions that Obama carved in the embargo a month after his Dec. 17 announcement of detente with Cuba is designed explicitly to help ordinary Cuban citizens and the island’s growing private sector rather than its socialist, single-party government.

But the Cuban government retains control of most aspects of life on the island. Obama administration officials acknowledged from the start that it would be impossible to prevent warming ties from helping a state apparatus that the U.S. criticizes for a lack of political and economic freedom. American tourism to the island is still prohibited by U.S. law and critics of Obama’s engagement with Cuba say that it will simply funnel cash to Raul Castro’s government.

The Finca Vigia is one of Havana’s most popular tourist attractions and its entrance fees go to the government, but Adams said the preservation lab wouldn’t be a part of that.

“It is not going to attract visitors but it will keep the collection safe,” she said.

She said that questions about the ethics of a project that works with the Cuban government had long since dissipated.

“It was sensitive probably 10 years ago. It no longer is,” she said.

Human rights in spotlight after US-Cuba deal

To many exiles and their allies, President Raul Castro is a brutal dictator who locks up dissenters in gulag-like jails, snuffs out political discourse and condemns his people to socialist poverty.

Cuba’s supporters see the government as heroic, its sins justified by the behavior of its giant enemy to the north, and offset by the fact it provides health care and education that most developing countries could only dream of.

As often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

President Barack Obama said last week that he began his historic call with Castro earlier in the week by delivering a 15-minute lecture on human rights and political freedom, adding: “This is still a regime that oppresses its people.”

Even so, he said that U.S. policy had failed to change Cuba for more than a half century and it was time to try something new.

Human rights activists welcomed the overhaul of U.S.-Cuba relations, but added that the Communist government has much to answer for, including a denial of freedom of speech, the banning of independent labor unions and a lack of fair and competitive elections.

“I believe that President Obama is making the right decision, but that does not mean that our serious human rights concerns with regard to Cuba have gone away,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. He said the abuses were “part of state policy, systematic and widespread.”

Castro has defended the single-party political system, saying open elections would be tantamount to “legalizing the party or parties of imperialism on our soil.”

Accusations of human rights abuses have dogged the Cuban government since the beginning, starting with summary trials and executions after the 1959 revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, whose regime committed its own abuses, including torture, executions and persecution of the press.

In the years that followed, priests, gay people and others considered socially dangerous were sent to labor camps in the countryside, and political opponents were jailed or forced into exile.

The panorama has undoubtedly shifted in recent years, particularly since Fidel Castro handed power to his brother in 2006.

In 2010, Raul Castro negotiated a deal with the Roman Catholic Church and Spain to free the last of 75 political dissidents who had been rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to long jail terms, and he has allowed more church freedom on the island, building on the opening worked out between Fidel and Pope John Paul II.

Amnesty International counts five Cuban inmates as “prisoners of conscience,” down sharply from years past, though Marselha Goncalves Margerin, the group’s advocacy director for the Americas, said Amnesty has campaigned for others that don’t meet its strict definition.

“Cuba has always used the excuse of the U.S. embargo and restrictions to crack down on dissidents,” she said. “Once this is removed, we do hope this will generate human rights changes.”

As part of this week’s deal with the United States, Castro agreed to free 53 people the White House describes as dissidents, though their identities have not been released. It was not clear if any of those on Amnesty’s list were among them.

Elizardo Sanchez, one of the only independent human rights activists tolerated on the island, said he has been getting calls from inmates asking him if he has a list and whether they’re on it, but he’s had to say he doesn’t know. There’s been no evidence of any mass release, he said.

Sanchez also welcomed the restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States, despite what he described as a sharp increase in acts of harassment and intimidation.

While the government has moved away from sentencing dissidents to long jail terms, he said that short-term detentions have spiked under Raul Castro, from 2,074 in 2010 to 8,410 through the first 11 months of this year. Cuban authorities dismiss his findings as a fiction, and consider the dissidents to be paid stooges of Washington.

While the Castro government has not budged on the issue of a one-party state, Vivanco says that Cuba’s rights problems aren’t in the same league as a country such as North Korea, and says there has been movement on some key issues such as freedom of travel that was tightly controlled under Fidel Castro.

Prominent dissidents such as the blogger Yoani Sanchez have been allowed to travel under the reforms, using their trips to speak out against government policy.

The younger Castro has opened the island to some private enterprise, and allowed Cubans to own cellphones and computers. Rights for the LGBT community have also advanced under Raul Castro, whose daughter is the island’s most prominent advocate for gay rights. The government’s free universal health care system now pays for gender reassignment surgery, and gay pride parades are an annual fixture.

Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Center at Florida International University, acknowledged progress on some issues like freedom of religion, but added that Raul Castro largely shared the attitudes of his brother.

“Since Raul took over, repressive strategies have become more subtle, not necessarily less brutal,” he said.

Elizardo Sanchez warned against believing that an improving relationship between Washington and Havana would change much on the human rights front.

“I don’t think there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between the normalization of relations between the countries and the necessary implementation of reforms by the Cuban government,” he said.

Obama concurred, saying he did not expect improvements overnight.

Text of President Obama’s remarks on Cuba

The text of President Barack Obama’s remarks on Dec. 17 on the release of American Alan Gross from a Cuban prison and on future diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The text was provided by the White House:

Good afternoon. Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.

In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.

There’s a complicated history between the United States and Cuba. I was born in 1961 – just over two years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and just a few months after the Bay of Pigs invasion, which tried to overthrow his regime. Over the next several decades, the relationship between our countries played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, and America’s steadfast opposition to communism. We are separated by just over 90 miles. But year after year, an ideological and economic barrier hardened between our two countries.

Meanwhile, the Cuban exile community in the United States made enormous contributions to our country – in politics and business, culture and sports. Like immigrants before, Cubans helped remake America, even as they felt a painful yearning for the land and families they left behind. All of this bound America and Cuba in a unique relationship, at once family and foe.

Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades. We have done so primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island, preventing the most basic travel and commerce that Americans can enjoy anyplace else. And though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people. Today, Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power half a century ago.

Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born. Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China – a far larger country also governed by a Communist Party. Nearly two decades ago, we re-established relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.

That’s why – when I came into office – I promised to re-examine our Cuba policy. As a start, we lifted restrictions for Cuban-Americans to travel and send remittances to their families in Cuba. These changes, once controversial, now seem obvious. Cuban-Americans have been reunited with their families, and are the best possible ambassadors for our values. And through these exchanges, a younger generation of Cuban-Americans has increasingly questioned an approach that does more to keep Cuba closed off from an interconnected world.

While I have been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way – the wrongful imprisonment, in Cuba, of a U.S. citizen and USAID subcontractor Alan Gross for five years. Over many months, my administration has held discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case, and other aspects of our relationship. His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me, and to Cuba’s President Raul Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case, and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.

Today, Alan returned home – reunited with his family at long last. Alan was released by the Cuban government on humanitarian grounds. Separately, in exchange for the three Cuban agents, Cuba today released one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba, and who has been imprisoned for nearly two decades. This man, whose sacrifice has been known to only a few, provided America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents that included the men transferred to Cuba today, as well as other spies in the United States. This man is now safely on our shores.

Having recovered these two men who sacrificed for our country, I’m now taking steps to place the interests of the people of both countries at the heart of our policy.

First, I’ve instructed Secretary (of State John) Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations that have been severed since January of 1961. Going forward, the United States will re-establish an embassy in Havana, and high-ranking officials will visit Cuba.

Where we can advance shared interests, we will – on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response. Indeed, we’ve seen the benefits of cooperation between our countries before. It was a Cuban, Carlos Finlay, who discovered that mosquitoes carry yellow fever; his work helped Walter Reed fight it. Cuba has sent hundreds of health care workers to Africa to fight Ebola, and I believe American and Cuban health care workers should work side by side to stop the spread of this deadly disease.

Now, where we disagree, we will raise those differences directly – as we will continue to do on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba. But I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement. After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.

Second, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. This review will be guided by the facts and the law. Terrorism has changed in the last several decades. At a time when we are focused on threats from al-Qaida to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.

Third, we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba. This is fundamentally about freedom and openness, and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement. With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island. Nobody represents America’s values better than the American people, and I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.

I also believe that more resources should be able to reach the Cuban people. So we’re significantly increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba, and removing limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people, and the emerging Cuban private sector.

I believe that American businesses should not be put at a disadvantage, and that increased commerce is good for Americans and for Cubans. So we will facilitate authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba. U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions. And it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba.

I believe in the free flow of information. Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe. So I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.

These are the steps that I can take as president to change this policy. The embargo that’s been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation. As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.

Yesterday, I spoke with Raul Castro to finalize Alan Gross’s release and the exchange of prisoners, and to describe how we will move forward. I made clear my strong belief that Cuban society is constrained by restrictions on its citizens. In addition to the return of Alan Gross and the release of our intelligence agent, we welcome Cuba’s decision to release a substantial number of prisoners whose cases were directly raised with the Cuban government by my team. We welcome Cuba’s decision to provide more access to the Internet for its citizens, and to continue increasing engagement with international institutions like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross that promote universal values.

But I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans. The United States believes that no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard, and we will continue to support civil society there. While Cuba has made reforms to gradually open up its economy, we continue to believe that Cuban workers should be free to form unions, just as their citizens should be free to participate in the political process.

Moreover, given Cuba’s history, I expect it will continue to pursue foreign policies that will at times be sharply at odds with American interests. I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight. But I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.

To those who oppose the steps I’m announcing today, let me say that I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy. The question is how we uphold that commitment. I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. Even if that worked – and it hasn’t for 50 years – we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos. We are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help.

To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship. Some of you have looked to us as a source of hope, and we will continue to shine a light of freedom. Others have seen us as a former colonizer intent on controlling your future. José Martí once said, “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.” Today, I am being honest with you. We can never erase the history between us, but we believe that you should be empowered to live with dignity and self-determination. Cubans have a saying about daily life: “No es facil” – it’s not easy. Today, the United States wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.

To those who have supported these measures, I thank you for being partners in our efforts. In particular, I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is; the government of Canada, which hosted our discussions with the Cuban government; and a bipartisan group of congressmen who have worked tirelessly for Alan Gross’s release, and for a new approach to advancing our interests and values in Cuba.

Finally, our shift in policy toward Cuba comes at a moment of renewed leadership in the Americas. This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas. But we will insist that civil society join us so that citizens, not just leaders, are shaping our future. And I call on all of my fellow leaders to give meaning to the commitment to democracy and human rights at the heart of the Inter-American Charter. Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism, the tyranny of drug cartels, dictators and sham elections. A future of greater peace, security and democratic development is possible if we work together – not to maintain power, not to secure vested interest, but instead to advance the dreams of our citizens.

My fellow Americans, the city of Miami is only 200 miles (300 kilometers) or so from Havana. Countless thousands of Cubans have come to Miami – on planes and makeshift rafts; some with little but the shirt on their back and hope in their hearts. Today, Miami is often referred to as the capital of Latin America. But it is also a profoundly American city – a place that reminds us that ideals matter more than the color of our skin, or the circumstances of our birth; a demonstration of what the Cuban people can achieve, and the openness of the United States to our family to the South. Todos somos Americanos.

Change is hard – in our own lives, and in the lives of nations. And change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders. But today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future – for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.

Thank you. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.