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Embargo on Cuba loosens, by stages

But more trade and eased travel restrictions appear unlikely to win much in return from the island nation.

By Correspondent / June 12, 2009

What does the embargo restrict?

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The US prohibits most Americans from spending money in Cuba, effectively prohibiting travel to the island, with some exceptions, including for educational programs and academic research. Until recently, under a Bush administration tightening of travel restrictions, Cuban Americans could only visit relatives in Cuba once every three years and were allowed to stay for up to two weeks. Money transfers to family members were restricted.

Most trade between the two countries has been prohibited since 1962. But in 2000, Congress passed a law allowing Cuba to buy American agricultural products with cash. The US subsequently became Cuba's fifth-largest trading partner, as of 2007, with US agricultural sales to Cuba reaching $718 million in 2008. The biggest exports in 2008 included $198 million in corn, $153 million in meat and poultry, and $135 million in wheat, according to the Census Bureau. Companies that export to Cuba include such industry giants as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland Co., Tyson Foods, and Perdue.

There are also some exceptions to the embargo allowing US biotechnology companies to develop drugs created in Cuba.

What changes has Mr. Obama made to the embargo?

In April, Obama lifted all travel and remittance restrictions for Americans with family in Cuba, and called on Cuba to make progress on human rights and release political prisoners. He also allowed US telecommunications companies to do business in Cuba, which would expand satellite television, Internet, and cellphone access on the island. But travel restrictions remain in place for Americans with no family members in Cuba.

Will the US lift the travel ban for all Americans?

Obama could relax restrictions for nontourist travel, bringing restrictions back to Clinton administration levels, when 30,000 to 40,000 Americans traveled to Cuba every year for cultural exchanges and educational programs. In 2003 the Bush administration ended cultural exchange programs – and tightened restrictions on university-affiliated programs to Cuba, requiring that they be at least 10 weeks long, which eliminated summer programs; preventing universities from enrolling students of other universities in the summer programs; and requiring that the program director be a full-time employee of the university. Under the new regulations, says William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, the number of universities operating educational programs in Cuba has fallen from several dozen to about six.

Tens of thousands of Americans visit Cuba illegally every year, usually entering Cuba through a third country such as Mexico. According to the Associated Press, about 40,500 Americans visited Cuba illegally in 2007.

Obama has not indicated whether he would support pending legislation that would end the ban on tourism travel, which could come to a vote before the end of this year. He would be unlikely to oppose a rollback if it passed Congress with a clear majority, but Professor LeoGrande says, "he's letting Congress take the initiative."