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White House Starts Chipping Away At U.S. Embargo On Cuba

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Obama administration is making good on its promise to ease travel and trade restrictions on Cuba. The Treasury and Commerce Department say new rules go into effect tomorrow. Critics of the administration are questioning the legality of those moves, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Silvia Wilhelm has been leading cultural and educational tours to Cuba for nearly two decades and says her job just got a whole lot easier. She's looking forward to spending less time filling out paperwork for the Treasury Department.

SILVIA WILHELM: It took, like, six months to get the license, and then another six months to get it extended. It was totally a bureaucratic nightmare. We don't have to do that anymore.

KELEMEN: But it's not yet open season for tourism, she cautions. Americans hoping to go to Cuba have to fit into one of 12 categories that include family visits, professional research, religious activities and cultural exchanges.

WILHELM: So people can't just go individually if they don't fall under the 12 categories of travel and just go to the beach. That's still not possible.

KELEMEN: Still, she says, the phones at her company, Cuba Puentes, have been ringing off the hook. And Wilhelm is pleased to see that travelers will now be allowed to use U.S. credit and debit cards on the island, and Cuban-Americans, like herself, will be able to send more money back to family in Cuba, up to $2,000 every three months. Travelers will also be able to bring back up to a hundred dollars' worth of Cuban cigars. At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest says President Obama has gone as far as he could to chip away at a decades-old embargo.

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JOSH EARNEST: However, there are limits on what the president can change in that relationship using his executive authority. So we certainly would welcome congressional action that would make it possible for people to travel to Cuba solely for the purposes of spending time on the beach in Cuba.

KELEMEN: There are still some staunch supporters of the embargo on Capitol Hill, though. One of them, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, calls the changes announced by the Commerce and Treasury Departments a windfall for the Castro regime. And he's raised questions about the legality of the administration's actions. The president does have a lot of latitude on this issue, according to John Kavulich, senior policy advisor to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. He supports the regulatory changes and thinks Obama's critics should take another look.

JOHN KAVULICH: The abilities to provide a much higher level of remittances and allow individuals to carry much more cash to Cuba and allow support for private entrepreneurs and micro businesses and that has the potential to stress the social fabric of Cuba.

KELEMEN: The U.S., he says, will be in a better position to support the development of a Cuban middle-class and promote change on the island, but Kavulich isn't expecting an increase in trade overnight.

KAVULICH: This is a poor country. It has horrible credit. And it has some major challenges. And it's only going to be able to import what it can afford to import.

KELEMEN: And what it can control, he says. So he has his doubts, for instance, that Cuba will allow U.S. investments in the telecommunications sector, as the Obama administration has been suggesting. When it comes to travel, Silvia Wilhelm has other concerns.

WILHELM: Cuba is not ready to greet the - who knows how many - thousands and thousands and thousands of American travelers that may want to go in the next year or so.

KELEMEN: The infrastructure just isn't there, she says. Still, Wilhelm, who was in Cuba a few days ago, says her contacts are excited about the prospect of increased travel, and she's expecting to add more cultural tours this year. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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