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"In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we are going to end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.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