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US further eases Cuba restrictions ahead of Obama visit

[WASHINGTON] The United States further eased travel and trade restrictions with Cuba Tuesday, just days before a historic visit to the communist-ruled island by President Barack Obama.

The US Treasury said the rule changes will make it easier for Americans to travel to the island for "educational" purposes, for US banks to provide more services in the Caribbean country, and US businesses to work more freely there.

The various steps were mostly minor and technical but add up to the continuing erosion of Congress-mandated restrictions on interactions with Cuba and Cubans as the Obama administration seeks to end the decades-old embargo on the country.

"Today's steps build on the actions of the last 15 months as we continue to break down economic barriers, empower the Cuban people and advance their financial freedoms, and chart a new course in US-Cuba relations," said Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew in a statement.

Obama flies into Cuba Sunday ahead of an official March 21-22 visit in a symbolically charged capstone to the rapprochement that he and President Raul Castro announced in December 2014.

From the 1960s until a just over a year ago Americans were mostly banned from tourism, trade and investment with the island barely 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of Florida.

While the US Congress continues to resist completely lifting the 1960s-era trade embargo and the 1996 Helms Burton Act which ban outright tourism, the new rules expand on previous exceptions that the Obama administration has announced to further allow travel.

Earlier moves opened the door to individuals and groups visiting for business, humanitarian, and cultural purposes. The new rules allow for individual "people-to-people educational" visits, which widens the opening for many kinds of travel.

Underpinning the expected expansion of travel is the signing in February of a bilateral agreement authorizing daily US commercial flights to the island for the first time in more than 50 years.

Several leading US airlines which already operate frequent charter flights to Cuba say they are ready to start up scheduled services.

Other specific changes announced Tuesday were: - US companies will be able to pay Cuban employees and contractors working legally inside the United States and Cubans will be able to open bank accounts in the United States to take payments - US businesses wanting to export products from Cuba will be able to establish offices on the island - US banks will be able to process "U-turn" transactions by Cubans and other non-Cuban parties.

Obama's moves to rebuild relations with Havana have come quickly over the final two years of his presidency. From the initial opening announced in December 2014, the two countries formally reestablished diplomatic relations on July 20 last year, and now each has an open embassy in the other's capital.

Lew said the new moves announced will "enable economic advancements for Cubans and Americans." "Today we are building on this progress by facilitating travel for additional Americans looking to engage with Cubans; allowing Cuban citizens to earn a salary in the United States; and expanding access to the US financial system as well as trade and commercial opportunities," said Lew.


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