Andrew Harnik/AP/File
President Barack Obama stands with Cuba's President Raúl Castro before a bilateral meeting, at the United Nations headquarters in 2015. Mr. Obama will use his upcoming historic trip to Cuba to chip away at key remaining US obstacles to travel and commerce with the communist island, working to push his rapprochement past the point of no return before he leaves office.

Cuban thaw: How will new rules change the US-Cuba relationship?

Actions by the US Departments of the Treasury and Commerce will open regulations regarding travel, trade, banking, and more between the US and Cuba.

The Obama administration on Tuesday lightened US restrictions over travel to Cuba and revised Treasury and Commerce Department oversight on Cuba-related matters, all part of the ongoing warming process between the United States and the Caribbean island nation following decades of persistent diplomatic tension.

“The goal of the President's policy with Cuba is simple: to improve the lives of Cubans and to advance the interests of the United States,” wrote White House Press Secretary John Earnest in a release.

“The President fundamentally believes that the best way to achieve that goal is by facilitating more interaction between the Cuban and American people, including through travel and commercial opportunities, and through more access to information.”

The US embargo on Cuba imposed in 1960 remains legally active and may only be lifted by Congress, a move which remains unlikely given Republican lawmakers' aversion to dealing with Cuba. But Tuesday’s policy shift highlights yet another effort by the White House to de-escalate political hostilities felt by both countries since Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover of former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista’s authoritarian regime.

The diplomatic thawing process began in late 2014 with the announcement of normalization efforts of US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro.

Those efforts take a symbolic leap forward next week, in the first visit by a US president to Cuba in nearly 90 years.

Tuesday’s actions by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) further loosened restrictions that remain in place concerning exposure between the governments of Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro. US citizens hoping to travel to Cuba for educational purposes may do so without official authorization under a sponsor organization.

Although outright tourism from the US to Cuba is still banned, travel to the island republic is under less scrutiny than ever.

For Cubans, the new regulations allow for “Cuban nationals in the United States in a non-immigrant status” to earn salaries in the US excepting any outstanding taxes levied by Havana, and to open bank accounts in the US.

This is especially significant for Cuban athletes, who may now be able to legally work with high-level sporting organizations without having to defect from their homeland. Cuban artists and entertainers would also be allowed to earn money and deal with US companies under the revised rules.

Banking services connected to US financial systems and the US dollar will also be more openly authorized in Cuba, increasing the republic’s currently limited presence in international trade. Additionally, OFAC may expand authorization regarding the presence of US organizations on the island, allow Cuban software to be imported to the US, and more openly review Cuban exports and shipping routes from the US through Cuban ports.

“Today’s steps build on the actions of the last 15 months as we continue to break down economic barriers, empower the Cuban people and advance their financial freedoms, and chart a new course in US-Cuba relations,” said Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew in a statement.

“Today’s amendments build upon President Obama’s historic actions to improve our country's relationship with Cuba and its people,” said Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. “These steps not only expand opportunities for economic engagement between the Cuban people and the American business community, but will also improve the lives of millions of Cuba’s citizens.”

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