Major Changes to U.S.-Cuba Relations

Dec 17, 2014 | By David Savona
Major Changes to U.S.-Cuba Relations

Today, the United States government announced sweeping changes to its longstanding embargo against Cuba. Soon there will be a U.S. embassy in Havana; Americans will be allowed to send more money to Cuba, both for relatives and for the development of business; and Americans visiting the island will be able to return to the U.S. with some Cuban products, including Cohibas and other Cuban cigars.

These moves are not an end to the embargo, and President Barack Obama needs Congress to fully normalize relations. In his speech today at noon from the White House, he said he would reach out to Congress to begin talks to end the embargo.

Today's actions are the result of high-level, direct discussions between the U.S. and Cuban governments, including a conversation lasting approximately one hour between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro that led to the release of prisoners held by both countries, including Alan Gross, an American who had been held in Cuba for five years, and an unnamed American spy who was incarcerated in Cuba for nearly 20 years.

These are the biggest changes in U.S.-Cuba policy since the embargo as we know it began in 1962.

"In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we are going to end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.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," said President Obama.

President Obama spoke frankly about the embargo, calling it a policy that has not worked. "It has had little effect," he said, "beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for providing restrictions on its people. Today, Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the communist party that came to power half a century ago."

The changes are dramatic, if not complete. This news does not mean that Cuban cigars and other goods will appear in U.S. cigar shops tomorrow morning, but it does pave an important first step—and a big one—toward establishing normalized relations between the two countries.

Secretary of State John Kerry will immediately begin official talks with Cuba, which have been essentially nonexistent since January 1961. The U.S. embassy in Havana will be re-established, marking the first time since 1961 that the U.S. would have a formal embassy in Cuba. (The U.S. presently has an Interests Section in Cuba, which is not an official embassy.)

The flow of money to Cuban nationals (excluding certain government officials) by Americans will be vastly increased, from $500 per quarter to $2,000 per quarter, with no limit on donations for humanitarian efforts. U.S. businesses will have an easier time sending goods to Cuba and setting up financing on the island. President Obama spoke of Americans being allowed to use U.S. credit and debit cards on the island, something that has been prohibited.

The changes seem to favor the flow of U.S. goods to Cuba, while still largely curtailing the flow in the opposite direction. And while tourism will not be openly allowed under these new policies, and most Americans will still be prohibited from traveling to Cuba, those who are able to travel (including those with family in Cuba, people on humanitarian missions, journalists) will have an easier time getting there.

"It will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba," said Obama. For the first time since the Bush Administration, travelers who go on a trip between Cuba and the U.S. will be permitted to return to the U.S. with up to $400 in Cuban goods. Only $100 of those goods can be tobacco or alcohol. Since most boxes of 25 Cuban cigars sell for more than $100 in Havana, in many cases travelers will be prohibited from legally bringing back a full box of cigars.

A source at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, speaking on background, said the limits would apply only to authorized trips between Cuba and the U.S. American travelers going to third-party countries such as France or the United Kingdom could not legally bring Cuban cigars (or any other Cuban products) to the U.S. upon their return. “Travelers to other parts of the world will not be permitted to bring in Cuban cigars,” the source said. The source expected the regulations to be revised “in the coming weeks.”

President Obama emphasized human rights several times in his speech, and noted the damage the embargo has done to ordinary Cubans, if not the government in power. "U.S. engagement will be critical when appropriate and will include continued strong support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba and other measures aimed at fostering improved conditions for the Cuban people," he said. "We should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens."

Each of these changes centered around an exchange of prisoners between Cuba and the U.S. This morning, Cuba released Alan Gross, an American citizen who had been held captive in Cuba since 2009. Gross flew from Havana to the U.S. this morning, landing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland where he was shown being greeted by Secretary of State Kerry. Gross, 65, was arrested in December 2009 and imprisoned for distributing electronics and computer equipment in Cuba, a country where Internet access is strictly limited for citizens.

Cuba also released another American prisoner, a spy who had been imprisoned by Cuba for close to two decades.

In return, the U.S. freed three members of the so-called "Cuban Five," a group of Cubans who were arrested in 1998 and had been imprisoned by the U.S. after being convicted of espionage. Posters and billboards asking to "Free the Cuban Five" are common sights for visitors to Cuba.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), speaking on CNN this morning, felt that the U.S. was giving up too much in this arrangement, and the Cuban government was doing too little to justify these moves.

This move, said Rubio, meant the Cubans were providing "No democratic opening, no freedom of the press, no freedom of organization or assembly, no elections, no politicial parties, no democratic opening at all. ... It is a lifeline to the Castro regime that will allow them to become more profitable. The Cuban people are even further away from democracy."

Others saw this as a move in the right direction.

"Opening the door with Cuba for trade, travel and the exchange of ideas will create a force for positive change in Cuba that more than 50 years of our current policy of exclusion could not achieve," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois).

"Obama has finally advanced the interests of U.S. policy by ending the perpetual hostility in relations between Washington and Havana," said Peter Kornbluh, an author of several books on U.S.-Cuba relations, in an email sent from Havana this morning. "He has brought U.S. policy from its anachronistic past into the modern world."

"For cigar smokers in America, Cuban cigars have long been the forbidden fruit. The cigar business was born in Cuba, and cigars made in Havana have a worldwide reputation for excellence. We yearn for the day when our readers can have the opportunity to legally buy and enjoy cigars from every country," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine. "Today marks the biggest change in U.S.-Cuba relations since 1961. This does not mean the end of the embargo, but it's the dawn of a new day that brings the United States and Cuba a big step closer to normal relations. For cigar smokers, there is the promise of something bigger to come."

President Obama has long showed hints that he was open to easing the longstanding animosity between the U.S. and Cuba. In March, 2009 President Obama signed a Senate appropriations bill into law that made it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba, and also paved the way for more business travelers to go to the island. In 2011, he greatly expanded the number of U.S. airports that could host flights to Cuba, and he made headlines in December 2013 when he shook hands with Raúl Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela.

Andrew Nagy and Gordon Mott contributed to this story.

"It's not about cigars, it's about free speech and democracy. The 50+ year US embargo has not resulted in a regime change in Cuba - so it's about time for a different approach. Encouraging small Cuban businesses through easier access to foreign investment seem to me a sensible way forward. History has shown that totalitarian regimes do not prosper in the long-term, they fail because people want freedom of expression in every sense. The US is right to encourage this by providing a way for more Cubans to own their own businesses. Change will not happen overnight but with the change in US policy it will happen much more quickly. BTW Cuban cigars are not overrated; they are as good (but not necessarily better) than the best from Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic." —January 4, 2015 13:06 PM
"It will be interesting to see how the access to Cuban made cigars does impact the market. Right now for Americanos, they are as one said, forbidden fruit. Remember Coors beer many years ago? After the novelty wears off, I believe the quality will not be any better than what is out there right now. " —January 2, 2015 12:48 PM
""SO MY QUESTION IS, CAN FOREIGNERS (FRENCH, BRITS, ETC.) BRING CUBAN TOBACCO PRODUCTS INTO THE U.S. LEGALLY?" The answer is NO -- the Embargo has NOT been lifted. Only Congress can do that. Obama cannot and did not modify the terms of the embargo. All Obama did was lift some travel restrictions. Read the second paragraph in the article above. Would Customs enforce the ban -- not on 3 or 4 cigars -- but probably would on a whole box or more." —December 30, 2014 19:17 PM
"As Simon Schmid said, ". . .Cuban cigars. They are highly over-rated and expensive. There are finer products form the other cigar producing regions including your own." in August 1989, Zino Davidof had publicly burned over one hundred thousand of his cigars that he had deemed of low quality and unfit to sell. The Cuban Davidoff line was officially discontinued in 1991, Having tried "Cuban Cigars" in both Canada and the UK in the 1990s, I fully understand and agree with his actions. I'll happily enjoy an H.Upmann over a Cohiba any day -- 50 years ago, re-opening Cuba might have been meaningful from a Cigar aficionado's point of view, but not today." —December 30, 2014 19:12 PM
"Obama cannot unitarily end the embargo. Congress has to act to do that. All he is doing is caving into ththe murderous Castro brothers. It's not worth a hundred bucks in Cuban cigars. " —December 30, 2014 17:42 PM
"Steve Wilson.... I get great cigars now. If i buy cuban cigars will the cuban people get treated any better? Will they get the right to vote? Dont get me wrong. I love to sneak a montecristo but i hate the thought of throwing real big money into the Castro pockets and lwaving the ghettos in the 50's." —December 28, 2014 00:42 AM
"Steve Wilson.... I get great cigars now. If i buy cuban cigars will the cuban people get treated any better? Will they get the right to vote? Dont get me wrong. I love to sneak a montecristo but i hate the thought of throwing real big money into the Castro pockets and lwaving the ghettos in the 50's." —December 28, 2014 00:23 AM
"We anticipate some great cigars however, I think we may be surprised at the entrepreneurial hijacking which may occur with a trade embargo lifting. The box of 25 R/Js I purchased in Germany for approx $200 will probably be easily twice that in the USA come the day. Regrettably, I think I've smoked the best Cubans I'll ever have had the opportunity already. I hope I am wrong. CA reported some years back that Cuban had approx 8 million cigars in warehouses awaiting this day. Yet, everyone gets greedy when the going gets lucrative! Watch and see." —December 21, 2014 07:23 AM
"I love a good puro but I will not support the Cuban government by buying their cigars.I don't plan on sending any money to North Korea, Iran or ISIS either. If I have I cigar I do not want any regrets or remorse interfering with my enjoyment. I cannot enjoy a Cuban Cigar because of all the death and oppression behind it.In my younger Army days I enjoyed quite a few.After you grow up it is impossible to savor a Cuban cigar if you have ever seen what real communist dictatorship looks like front and center. " —December 20, 2014 03:01 AM
"@Don McDowell -- From the article: 'A source at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, speaking on background, said the limits would apply only to authorized trips between Cuba and the U.S. American travelers going to third-party countries such as France or the United Kingdom could not legally bring Cuban cigars (or any other Cuban products) to the U.S. upon their return. “Travelers to other parts of the world will not be permitted to bring in Cuban cigars,” the source said. The source expected the regulations to be revised “in the coming weeks.”' SO MY QUESTION IS, CAN FOREIGNERS (FRENCH, BRITS, ETC.) BRING CUBAN TOBACCO PRODUCTS INTO THE U.S. LEGALLY?" —December 19, 2014 13:30 PM
"Does this mean travelers to Canada, UK, or any their country can bring in Cuban Cigars when they return to America? Would be nice to enjoy an E2 or Bolivar fino now and then. " —December 19, 2014 10:35 AM
"Dr. Juan Garcia- What selective memories people have. Before Castro there was the U.S. and Mafia supported Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar dictator who suspended the Cuban Constitution, condemned people to poverty, and prostituted the children of Cuban to visiting Mafia thugs. Castro is no angel but compared to Batista he was a rookie. The people of Cuba have suffered for too long. I support the lifting of embargo once and for all. If you feel this helps Raul Castro than I guess you have no problem when buying products from the Butchers of Beijing, China or the Vietnamese who killed thousands of Americans. Yes, indeed, selective memory." —December 18, 2014 23:40 PM
"Historic and bittersweet...normalization process will begin but dictatorship and tyranny continues to rule Cuba. " —December 18, 2014 22:19 PM
"Dear CA: Under the current or new regulations, are foreign citizens permitted to bring Cuban cigars into the US from third party countries? If said individuals are neither American or Cuban, is it illegal for them to declare Cuban products upon entry into the US? Thanks." —December 18, 2014 16:29 PM
"I work as a tobacconist for JR Cigars which is owned by Altadis. Altadis owns Montecristo, H. Upmann, RyJ and other premium “free-world” faces. They also own 50% of Cuban production. This August I was flown to the Connecticut River Valley to tour the tobacco fields there affiliated with Altadis as part of my training as a tobacconist. It was an honor to be chosen to go. There were two Altadis reps there acting as guides, as Altadis sponsored this trip. My co-worker Shawn asked one of them the question that if they drop the embargo will JR be the distributor for Cubans in America? The rep answered, no…we’re going to form a third party company to distribute in the U.S. Shawn followed with the question that if and when this happens, will Cuba cut corners on quality to meet increased demands for their product? The rep answered again, absolutely not. Every cigar we roll in Cuba is sold before we roll it. Production standards will 'not' diminish nor will quality of our product. Just to let everyone know J." —December 18, 2014 12:26 PM
"50 years of isolation accomplished nothing. It's time for a new approach. Finally we have a politician willing to try something new. " —December 18, 2014 11:01 AM
"To my fellow neighbors. It will be interesting to see over the next several weeks/months/years how much will change. As a Canadian who has had the opportunity to smoke Cuban cigars. They are highly over-rated and expensive. There are finer products form the other cigar producing regions including your own. Be blessed with what you have and keep supporting your local merchant." —December 18, 2014 10:42 AM
"This measure brings us back to pre-2004. Remember, American tourists were allowed to return from Cuba with $100 or $150 worth of tobacco until '04, when Bush tightened restrictions during his run for a second presidential term. " —December 18, 2014 10:37 AM
"Having spent a week in Cuba building a church in 2001, I saw first hand the oppression the Cuban Government has placed on the good people of Cuba. My hope is that one day they will be free of the dictatorship, and also that we as Americans will be able to freely go there and spend money. Regarding their cigars, they are, in my opinion, overrated compared to what we get from the other countries." —December 18, 2014 10:29 AM
"Zero has rescued a failing communist government that was collapsing, now that Venezuela can't afford to prop it up because they, despite record oil production, are collapsing also. The Castro regime is and always has been brutal and the impact of communism/ Marxism is evident in their products. The embargo has nothing to do with the economic state, they are free to trade with anybody they want to. Cigars and cars say it all about communism. Cigars without economic incentive offered by capitalism and without ownership suffer as well as cars. When was the last time you saw a regular Cuban citizen driving anything other than a 1957 Chevy(albeit held together ingeniously). Long live Capitalism, everywhere it has been tried, it exceeds the grandest expectations." —December 18, 2014 10:14 AM
"Firstly, One can't talk Cuba without talking politics. Sharing ones views is certainly not "pushing". Relax. Take a deep puff. The end of the embargo may allow us to legally purchase cuban cigars, but whether this is the right policy to help the Cuban people is arguable. In the meantime, I'm smoking Nicaraguan. Merry Christmas all. Not to push my religious views on anyone... ;)" —December 18, 2014 09:01 AM
"Of the few Cuban cigars which have been given to me, they are still not as good as what is currently available from Nicaragua, DR, etc. Quality had dropped based on the few people that I have talked to who use to work in Cuba making cigars. The market will determine what is best once the law of scarcity is removed." —December 18, 2014 08:30 AM
"Presidential politics aside, it's about time this happened. The embargo is simpleminded, ineffective and punitive for both Americans and the populations of Cuba. It's about time this conversation, long held in check by the electoral votes of Florida, reached the obvious conclusion. The polls suggest that short of a very narrow constituency, Americans in general support removing the embargo. BTW, the Staten "Island incident" was just that, an incident. Hardly qualifies as "human rights abuses" which, in most countries, implies policy. There's a spot for you on the U.N. if you believe America has a policy of human rights abuse. " —December 18, 2014 08:04 AM
"I agree that we shouldn't be pushing polite beliefs. We do business with China because Walmart likes the cheap Labor. The US government buys Lenovo computers even though there's a button to take you back to Lenovo for help. We buy computer products from foreign countries that have back doors that the manufacturers (and their governments) can access. Cubans make great cigars. When I go on cruises, I always get Cuban cigars to smoke on the ship. The US treated Cuba like a colony and they kicked us out. Our government approach is certainly then has been to act like whiny cry babies. It's about time to get over it." —December 18, 2014 04:48 AM
"I don't think I've ever realized how ignorant most of my countrymen are until this president came into office. Ronald Reagan took the working mans deduction for interest on car loans away as well as the deduction for credit card interest. The economy suffered. George (W) gave the corporations the largest tax breaks in history. The economy tanked. Record breaking profits shouldn't equal record breaking unemployment. Politicians and the wealthy never missed their Cuban cigars. Here's to the president who thought about the rest of us. I don't care what your wife or the rest of those B**ches in Washington say about you. You're alright with me (lighting up my Pepin)" —December 18, 2014 02:13 AM
"Will be interesting to see how the market shifts. Opens up so many possibilities for unique blends between cuban tobaccos and all the great flavor profiles from places like Nicaragua, Dom Rep , et all. Negative side would be a spike in the counterfeits being sold to the U.S. Market. Thoughts?? " —December 18, 2014 00:25 AM
"I wish people would stop pushing their political beliefs on a website dedicated to something we all love and enjoy. I look at this from a human rights perspective and not a political perspective. Do I like our President? Not really, but on this long overdue descision, I completely support hiim. We as a nation have caused so much harm to the Cuban people and their economy by our silly embargo. It's time to put the past in the past and look forward to a bright, smoke-filled future!" —December 17, 2014 23:21 PM
"Cigars for ALL." —December 17, 2014 22:56 PM
"12/17/14, It's a step in the right direction; BO's damage to the US far outweighs any good gesture. I wouldn't fall for this just yet. Want do do something really positive? Repeal "BamCare," think that'll happen? Triva is right: Cuban-made doesn't guarantee quality; much like Japanese or German products. " —December 17, 2014 21:15 PM
"obama's a jackass " —December 17, 2014 21:01 PM
"This is great news for cigar smokers! Long overdue." —December 17, 2014 20:00 PM
"Congrats to all of the writers on this piece since it was as well balanced, in my view, as anything so far. My concerns lay with the U.S. Congress as well as with those companies in Central And South America as well as other Caribbean regions that would like to keep the status quo. There is no doubt there are human rights violations in Cuba....but we can look right here in our own country for violations as well, viz a viz, Statin Island, NY. I would hate to see KFC the first business to build in Havana. As a long time subscriber to CA, I am looking fwd to further articles by the above mentioned writers. best, lc" —December 17, 2014 19:31 PM
"Obama and Castro, Chavez, his successor are all kindred spirits. Cuban cigars while good are very overrated. All the old Cuban cigar rollers migrated to places like Nicaragua, Honduras etc., because the soils and climates were similar." —December 17, 2014 19:24 PM

More in Cuba

See all
New Retro-Style Cuban Coming Soon

New Retro-Style Cuban Coming Soon

The Cuban line of petit coronas that come in swanky, retro tins now includes a Hoyo de Monterrey.

May 25, 2023
Hoyo de Monterrey Edición Limitada 2021 Finally Launching

Hoyo de Monterrey Edición Limitada 2021 Finally Launching

More than two years after its announcement, the Hoyo de Monterrey Monterreyes No. 4 Edición Limitada …

May 17, 2023
United States Authorizes U.S. Auto Sales In Cuba

United States Authorizes U.S. Auto Sales In Cuba

More than 60 years after the embargo effectively halted the export of U.S. cars to Cuba, new …

May 16, 2023
Montecristo No. 2 Chosen For Spain’s Tauromaquia Series

Montecristo No. 2 Chosen For Spain’s Tauromaquia Series

Spanish cigar distributor Tabacalera S.L.U. has released the fifth edition of Tauromaquia, a …

May 2, 2023
Cuba Increases Prices Of Cohiba Behikes—Again

Cuba Increases Prices Of Cohiba Behikes—Again

If you thought that Cohiba Behikes were expensive after last year’s price hike, then you’re about to …

Apr 27, 2023
Cuban Ramon Allones Receives New Size

Cuban Ramon Allones Receives New Size

It’s been quite some time since Ramon Allones has received an addition to its standard, regular-produ…

Apr 6, 2023