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U.S.-Cuba Thaw Continues With Tobacco Diplomacy

The White House plans to make it easier to get Cuban tobacco and booze into the country. But American tourists still can't fly directly to the island nation just 90 miles away.

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They’re not yet sharing a mojito, but the thawing diplomacy between the United States and Cuba now includes tobacco and booze. The U.S. Treasury Department announced Thursday, Jan. 15, that Americans will be allowed to bring Cuban cigars -- considered by aficionados to be among the best in the world -- and alcohol into the United States.

American tourists still aren’t permitted to travel to the island directly from the United States. And the few people who now can, due to the Obama administration's eased restrictions, are only allowed to bring back $100 worth of Cuban smokes and cocktails. But the relaxed rules mark the latest in a slew of changes to normalize relations with Cuba that began last month with the release of former U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross, who had been held in a Cuban prison for more than five years.

A senior administration official said the White House set the $100 limit so travelers don’t go overboard on the goods.

They’re not yet sharing a mojito, but the thawing diplomacy between the United States and Cuba now includes tobacco and booze. The U.S. Treasury Department announced Thursday, Jan. 15, that Americans will be allowed to bring Cuban cigars — considered by aficionados to be among the best in the world — and alcohol into the United States.

American tourists still aren’t permitted to travel to the island directly from the United States. And the few people who now can, due to the Obama administration’s eased restrictions, are only allowed to bring back $100 worth of Cuban smokes and cocktails. But the relaxed rules mark the latest in a slew of changes to normalize relations with Cuba that began last month with the release of former U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross, who had been held in a Cuban prison for more than five years.

A senior administration official said the White House set the $100 limit so travelers don’t go overboard on the goods.

In a statement, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the new rules aim to update policies that no longer worked anyway, and put “in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people.”

In addition to lifting restrictions on alcohol and tobacco, the White House said it would allow the export of construction, agricultural, and telecommunications equipment. It is also permitting Americans to visit Cuba for religious, educational, and family visits without obtaining a special permit from the government as previously needed.

The changes, set to take effect Friday, Jan. 16, will also make it easier for U.S. firms to ship mobile phones, software, and Internet services to the island. U.S. airlines can also expand the number of flights to Cuba.

Americans will be able to send up to $8,000 in remittances to Cuba, up from $2,000. They also will be able to carry up to $10,000 into Cuba; the use of debit and credit cards there will also be allowed.

The new Cuba-friendly policies come nearly one month after the surprise U.S. announcement that the Cold War-era standoff was coming to an end. The changes also were announced days after Cuba made good on its promise to release 53 political prisoners. Now, U.S. and Cuban negotiators are set to meet Jan. 21 and 22 in Havana to continue the formal process of restoring diplomatic ties, which could include the establishment of a U.S. Embassy in Havana.

Critics quickly slammed the announcement, calling it an act of appeasement to Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

“This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against U.S. national interests in Latin America and beyond,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American and one of the loudest critics of the policy shift, said in a statement Thursday.

Photo credit: Inti Ocon/AFP

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