We’ll bet you didn’t know it was illegal for Americans to smoke Cuban cigars even in foreign countries. That’s OK. Because now it’s not.
On Tuesday, the Obama Administration announced several changes to rules governing the U.S. embargo on Cuban trade. One of the changes allows Americans to buy or otherwise acquire “Cuban-origin goods for personal consumption while in a third country.”
Specifically, a fact sheet published by the Department of Treasury says, “this authorization will allow, for example, Americans traveling in Europe to purchase and consume Cuban-origin alcohol and tobacco products while abroad.”
Previously, U.S. trade law regarding Cuba prohibited people under U.S. jurisdiction from buying, importing or engaging in “any transaction” involving goods originating in or transported through Cuba.
It’s important to note the word “consumption” in the new regulation. You can smoke all the Cohibas you want while abroad, but restrictions on bringing them back to the U.S. remain in place.
Are cuban cigars still illegal?
No. But can you buy cuban cigars in USA? No.
Under new rules announced last year, Americans can bring up to $100 worth of Cuban tobacco products (cigars) and/or alcohol (rum) back to the United States if they are bought in Cuba and brought directly home in personal baggage for personal use. Overall, Americans can bring home up to $400 worth of Cuban goods, of which $100 worth can be alcohol or tobacco products, or a combination thereof.
You still cannot legally bring Cuban products into the U.S. from Europe or anywhere else in the world other than Cuba itself.
U.S.-Cuba Travel Restrictions Eased
Rule changes announced this week also make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba.
Previous changes in travel and trade restrictions allowed Americans to travel to Cuba for educational purposes under the auspices of authorized organizations and while accompanied by a representative of the trip-sponsoring organization.
Now, individuals can travel to Cuba for “individual people-to-people educational travel” as long as the trip involves a “full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.” The traveler must submit an itinerary for approval and keep records of their activities.
A qualifying example, according to the Treasury Department, would be:
An individual plans to travel to Cuba to participate in discussions with Cuban artists on community projects, exchanges with the founders of a youth arts program, and to have extended dialogue with local city planners and architects to learn about historical restoration projects in Old Havana. The traveler will have a full-time schedule of such educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.
But this plan doesn’t cut the muster and doesn’t get you to Cuba with approval of the U.S. government:
An individual plans to travel to Cuba to participate in discussions with Cuban farmers and produce sellers about cooperative farming and agricultural practices and have extended dialogue with religious leaders about the influence of African traditions and religion on society and culture. The individual also plans to spend a few days engaging in brief exchanges with Cuban food vendors while spending time at the beach. Only some of these activities are educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba, and the traveler therefore does not have a full-time schedule of such activities on each day of the trip.
Cuban-U.S. Economic Barriers Targeted
Other rules changes announced this week allow Cuban nationals to earn a living in the U.S. and allow U.S. banks to open accounts for people who live in Cuba and to otherwise handle money for Cuba and Cuban residents.
Previously, Americans employing Cuban nationals could only compensate them enough to cover “living expenses and the acquisition of goods for personal consumption.” Now, legally anyway, Cubans can earn more.
In addition, financial transactions in which Cuba or a Cuban national has an interest can now be routed from foreign countries through American banks and back to foreign locales. These are commonly known as “U-turn payments.”
In a conference call between White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and the press, as reported by Bloomberg News, Rhodes said, “We are making it easier for the Cuban economy to open up to the global economy. There’s going to be more dollars on the island, and we wanted to find a practical way for those dollars to be processed.”
Rhodes also said Cuba should stop charging U.S. travelers to exchange American dollars for Cuban CUCs, calling it an “irritant” for Americans.
Officially the exchange rate is 1:1, but Cuba charges 13 cents on the dollar to make the exchange. Effectively, $100 U.S. is worth 87 CUCs.
Allowing Cuba to process U.S. dollars through American banks is seen as impetus to end the surcharge on American money brought to the island.
Opening Cuba to Americans: ‘Thanks, Obama’
President Obama announced plans to reestablish relations with Cuba in December 2014 and has since announced a series of changes to restrictions that date to 1962. The U.S. and Cuba opened embassies in each others’ capitals in August 2015.
Last month, the U.S. signed an agreement with Cuba to resume direct commercial flights between the two countries, which are expected to begin later this year.
Obama is to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years when he arrives there on March 20.
“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 U.S.-Cuba relations,” Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a statement accompanying Tuesday’s announcement.
However, it will take an act of Congress to fully lift the 54-year-old embargo.
Many Republicans, especially those of Cuban descent, oppose Obama’s relaxation of the U.S.’s official contempt for Cuba’s communist government.