UNITED States President Barack Obama issued a presidential directive on Cuba on Friday that seeks to institutionalize and cement his policy changes toward the island and encourage further engagement even after he leaves office.
His administration also released a sixth set of regulatory changes designed to enhance business and trade between the US and Cuba. It ranged from serious business overtures to one that will become a favorite of US travelers to the island: no more limit on how many bottles of rum and Cuban cigars they can bring back for personal use.
Obama called the presidential policy directive “another major step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with Cuba” and said it “takes a comprehensive and whole-of-government approach to promote engagement with the Cuban government and people and make our opening to Cuba irreversible.”
The detailed, 12-page document, which builds on and consolidates changes the administration has made since rapprochement between the US and Cuba began in December 2014, is “the manual that will be used by various agencies” to guide them in their future relations with Cuba, said a senior administration official.
It supersedes any previous presidential directives on Cuba and would stand as US-Cuba policy until it is replaced, said the official, who added: “It takes a significant amount of time to develop a presidential directive.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted earlier this week that he would “reverse Obama’s executive orders and concessions toward Cuba until freedoms are restored.”
But, said the administration official, it seems unlikely a future US president would try to close the US Embassy in Havana, end regularly scheduled flights to the island or disrupt the increasing number of budding business partnerships with Cuba.
To do so, the official said, would be “cutting against the grain of public opinion here in the United States.”
Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser, noted on Friday that the president’s directive came on the anniversary of the day in 1962, when an American U-2 plane flying over Cuba photographed offensive nuclear-missile sites, setting off the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although the crisis was averted, “mutual suspicion remained high” and relations were mired in hostility for decades, she said.
Rice said engagement is now the correct policy. “Already, we’re seeing what the United States and Cuba can accomplish when we put aside the past and work to build a brighter future,” she said during a speech at the Wilson Center.
The directive makes it clear the president would like to see the embargo lifted: “The United States government will seek to expand opportunities for US companies to engage with Cuba. The embargo is outdated and should be lifted.
“My administration has repeatedly called upon the Congress to lift the embargo, and we will continue to work toward that goal. While the embargo remains in place, our role will be to pursue policies that enable authorized US private-sector engagement with Cuba’s emerging private sector and with state-owned enterprises that provide goods and services to the Cuban people.”
It could be the final set of Cuba-related regulations issued by the Obama administration but a senior official said further “refinements” are always possible. The changes take effect on Monday, when the regulations are published in the Federal Register.
One of the most significant rule changes is one that allows US companies to negotiate binding contracts in Cuba, even in areas currently prohibited under the embargo. Such contracts or agreements would go into effect contingent on future US approval, such as lifting the embargo, said Augusto Maxwell, a lawyer at the Akerman firm.
The new rules also allow Cubans and Americans to engage in joint medical research and lift monetary limits on the amount of Cuban products Americans can bring back in their luggage for personal use. Currently, the limit is $400.
Also gone is the restriction that travelers can come back with only a combined total of $100 of alcohol and tobacco products. They can pack as many bottles of Cuban rum and cigars in their bags as they like—as long as they are for personal use and they pay the duties and taxes that would normally apply.
There will no longer be monetary limits on such products purchased in third countries that come into the US as accompanied baggage.