America’s half-century ban on Cuban cigars ended on Friday as a policy change driven by Barack Obama comes into force.
Weeks after the US President announced that he would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, the first practical changes are being made.
Americans will no longer have to seek a permit from the US government to visit the communist island. When they get there they will be able use their credit cards and bring back as much as $400 worth of souvenirs. Many suitcases are likely to be filled with Cuban cigars – the small print of the Treasury department regulations states that tourists can return with $100 worth of tobacco products.
Exiled Cuban Americans can now send as much as $2,000 every three months back to friends and family on the island, a quadrupling of the old limit of $500.
Finally, American telecommunications companies will be able to operate in Cuba, in the hope that this may give more residents access to the Internet.
“We firmly believe that allowing increased travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba will allow the United States to better advance our interests and improve the lives of ordinary Cubans,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary.
Technically Americans are still not allowed to go to Cuba as tourists. But in reality there is now little to stop them, and Cuba is bracing itself for a surge in US visitors. Havana’s state-owned hotels admitted that the small island may not be ready for the influx.
“This is good news, but we are lacking infrastructure in hotels and in administration,” said Maikel Gonzalez, a 34-year-old hotel receptionist. “American tourists are really demanding. How do I explain to one of them that the taxi didn’t come because it doesn’t have tyres, or that there’s no water in the rooms?”
The easing of sanctions is the first step in what Obama hopes will be a broad thawing of relations that will culminate with a US embassy opening in Havana for the first time since 1961.
Obama and Raul Castro, the Cuban leader, announced the changes on Dec 17 and the two sides have moved rapidly since. US officials said Cuba had fulfilled its promise to release 53 political prisoners over the past few weeks, although they declined to name them publicly.
A senior US diplomat will travel to Havana next week for talks on immigration rules and restoring diplomatic ties. Obama and Castro are expected to meet at a summit in Panama in April.
Under American law, Cubans who flee their country can claim asylum in the US. But many Cubans are worried that the normalising of relations will mean they are no longer welcome as refugees.
As a result, hundreds of Cubans are trying to make the perilous sea crossing to Florida before the new rules come into force.
Around 500 men, women and children were rescued by the US coast guard in December – more than double the number from the previous year.