On Friday, the United States announced it would further relax its sanctions on Cuba, an expansion of the rapprochement that began in earnest last December. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew explained in a statement:
These regulatory changes build on the revisions implemented earlier this year and will further ease sanctions related to travel, telecommunications and internet-based services, business operations in Cuba, and remittances. A stronger, more open U.S.-Cuba relationship has the potential to create economic opportunities for both Americans and Cubans alike.
And, in a line perhaps aimed at critics of the Obama administration’s Cuba policy, Lew added, “By further easing these sanctions, the United States is helping to support the Cuban people in their effort to achieve the political and economic freedom necessary to build a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.”
The loosening of sanctions will take effect Monday and includes granting American businesses the ability to do business in Cuba as well as open offices there. More American travelers will be eligible to visit and cruise ships will be able to directly travel between the two countries. Also, Americans will be able to open bank accounts in Cuba.
The announcement came on the eve of Pope Francis’s swing through Cuba and the United States. The pontiff, who is widely credited with helping to push the U.S. and Cuba closer after five decades, is expected to call on Cuba to allow greater religious freedoms and human rights, rail against the 53-year-old American embargo, while (controversially) avoiding meeting with Cuban dissidents. On social media, he seemed a mix between determined and preemptively fatigued:
I ask you to join me in praying for my trip to Cuba and the United States. I need your prayers.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) September 18, 2015
Ahead of the Pope’s visit, Cuba announced the release of more than 3,500 prisoners. Will the Treasury’s announcement have enough heft to inoculate the United States from Pope Francis’s criticisms of its Cuba policy? Probably not.
But the loosening of the embargo followed another symbolic development. As The New York Times noted, “On Thursday, Mr. Obama received credentials at the White House from the first Cuban ambassador to the United States since 1961.”