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Beyond Cigars: More Americans Can Travel And Sell Goods To Cuba Starting Friday

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Beginning Friday, American businesses will be able to sell a greatly expanded list of goods to Cuba — — including building materials for privately-owned homes, businesses, places of worship and “social or recreational use”; equipment for entrepreneurs such as auto mechanics, barbers and hairstylists and restaurateurs; and tools and equipment for private farmers. The new rules will also allow the U.S. to export communications devices like computers, cell phones, TVs and radios to the island.

U.S.-based organizations can also donate goods to Cuba for “scientific, archaeological, cultural, ecological, educational, historic preservation, or sporting activities,” according to the Department of Commerce.

Stating unequivocally that the more than 50 year Cuban Embargo “has not worked,” a statement from the White House claims the lifted sanctions will “empower the Cuban population to become less dependent upon the state-driven economy, and help facilitate our growing relationship with the Cuban people.”

The new rules will also allow American tourists to use their debit and credit cards in Cuba, and will eliminate the need for a special travel license for anyone going for the following reasons: family visits, official government business, journalism, research, education, religious activities, performances, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and humanitarian trips. Those travelers will now be able to bring back up to $400 dollars worth of goods per person, including up to $100 dollars worth of tobacco and alcohol.

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It could be years, though, before U.S. citizens can book a trip to the island purely for tourism — — a change that would require input from both the U.S. and Cuban governments. Senior administration officials also reminded reporters on a call Thursday morning that the import and export of most products remains prohibited.

They explained that the “philosophy” behind the changes is “the hope of empowering average Cubans to pursue with greater flexibility their individual dreams,” and allowing them to “operate independent of the Cuban state.”

But the Cuban people have cause to be wary of U.S. motives, as recent USAID initiatives presented as humanitarian were revealed to have a goal of destabilizing the government. On today’s call, Obama Administration officials would only say that they believe the new rules “will accelerate a process of transformation” on the island.

Some U.S. lawmakers are concerned about the new rules, or in the case of Marco Rubio, flat-out opposed. In a letter sent to the State Department this week, Rubio said the changes violate several U.S. laws, including the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the LIBERTAD Act and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act.

Officials on today’s call dismissed Rubio’s claims, asserting that the changes “remain within the letter and spirit of those laws.”

Others are complaining that new laws don’t go far enough.

“We want to end the embargo,” Paul Johnson, President of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, told ThinkProgress. The coalition, whose members include the nation’s biggest corn, soybean, meat and other agribusinesses, plans to travel to Cuba this March to meet with high level government officials, farmers and average consumers to find out how they can get their products on shelves in Havana and compete with the Chinese, Spanish and Brazilian companies that have dominated the market for decades.

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“I’ve got farmers in Illinois who say they want to ship down more soy, and want to buy winter vegetables from Cuba. That’s a beautiful thing,” said Johnson, whose group is also lobbying Congress to allow Cuba to export herbal medicine, honey, citrus, shrimp, fish, lobster, tobacco, rum and other products “they do well” to the United States.

“They have to be the owners of their destiny, with the help of the U.S.,” he said. “It takes two.”