The Obama administration announced broad opportunities Friday for American businesses to open facilities in Cuba, taking advantage of the recent restoration of diplomatic relations to push back against the decades-old congressional trade embargo.
The new regulations “will ease travel restrictions, enhance the safety of Americans visiting the country, and promote more business opportunities between U.S. and Cuban companies,” Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who is expected to visit Cuba this fall, said in a statement.
The rules would allow U.S. cruise ships to dock in Havana and ferries to run from Florida to Havana. At this point, Havana has no infrastructure to accommodate large cruise ships.
The rules also would allow U.S. companies to sell building materials, equipment and tools to private individuals and builders’ cooperatives that are springing up around Havana.
President Obama spoke by phone with Cuban President Raul Castro to discuss the latest shift. The two leaders, who have called for lifting the trade embargo, will attend the United Nations General Assembly session in New York on Sept. 28 and may meet on the sidelines.
U.S. officials have been frustrated by Cuba’s reluctance to open its markets, and Cuban officials did not indicate how they would respond to Washington’s latest push for access.
But American experts said the new Treasury and Commerce rules could let major U.S. companies establish a foothold and ultimately operate.
“This blows the lid off” the trade embargo, said Robert L. Muse, a Washington lawyer who specializes in Cuba.
“While this will not be an immediate big earner for U.S. companies, it is an opportunity to get on the island and start building from there,” he said.
The changes were announced on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba and the United States. The pope helped broker secret talks last year that led to reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington and growing efforts to normalize relations that were frozen for more than half a century.
“The U.S.-Cuba diplomatic opening is quickly morphing into commercial normalization,” said Peter Schechter, head of the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. Obama, he added, “is boldly skating to the very edge of what is permissible under the still-standing sanctions regime.”
Critics assailed Obama for trying to gut the embargo by boosting U.S. business in Cuba.
“President Obama’s eagerness to please the Castro regime knows no bounds, as he keeps offering one-sided concessions that will strengthen the brutal dictatorship at the expense of the Cuban people,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a presidential candidate.