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U.S. Eases Travel, Financial Restrictions On Cuba

The United States took a big step toward normalizing relations with Cuba by easing some travel and financial restrictions that have been in place for decades.

The Treasury and Commerce departments announced that the new rules take effect on Friday. According to The Hill, the new rules mean:

-- Travelers who meet certain criteria will no longer need to apply for a license from the Treasury department to travel to Cuba.

-- Americans will no longer be restricted in the amount of money they can spend on the island.

-- They will be able to use their credit and debit cards.

-- Travelers will be allowed to bring back up to $400 worth of goods, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco products.

-- In a four-fold increase, Cuban-Americans with family on the island will be allowed to send up to "$2,000 per quarter to family members on the island, although certain members of the Castro regime cannot receive the remittances."

President Obama announced these changes in a speech to the country back in December, in which he also announced a prisoner swap and Cuba's release of former USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

Next week, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will lead an American delegation in Cuba for historic talks on the normalization of diplomatic relations.

The talks are preceded by the release of 53 political prisoners who had been held by the Cuban government.

These new changes, it's important to note, do not lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which was fully implemented just as the U.S. broke off relations with the country in 1961.

When he made the case for lifting restrictions against Cuba, Obama said that the policies of the previous decades had not worked.

Critics in Congress, especially some prominent Cuban-Americans, called him naïve.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, wrote a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew on Wednesday asking for legal justification for the easing of restrictions announced today.

"We are deeply concerned that several aspects of the President Obama's new approach to Cuba, especially those related to unilaterally easing U.S. sanctions, violate the letter and spirit of several U.S. laws, and increase the moral and financial risk to the American taxpayer and financial system of doing business through Cuba's government-controlled financial system," Rubio, along with Sen. Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana, wrote.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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