President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced a slew of initiatives meant to restore US diplomatic relations with Cuba. This came hours after the American aid subcontractor Alan Gross was returned to the US after being held in Cuba for five years. From lifting the amount of alcohol and tobacco travelers can bring back from Cuba to a review of whether Cuba is to still be considered “a state sponsor of terrorism”, these initiatives are thought to be a major step in normalizing relations between the two countries.
“We are choosing to cut loose the anchor of the past, because it is entirely necessary to reach a better future – for our national interests, for the American people, and for the Cuban people,” Obama said in the announcement.
So what exactly does this mean, especially for the average American? A brief guide:
How have US-Cuba relations changed?
The US cut diplomatic ties with Cuba in January 1961. The secretary of state, John Kerry, has been tasked with initiating discussions with the country’s representatives in an effort to re-establish these ties. He is also set to review Cuba’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, a status the US has given it since 1982.
Obama said the initial step is to send a US delegation, led by the assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, Roberta Jacobson, to the next round of talks between the two countries. These discussions are scheduled for January in Havana.
The biggest development will be the re-establishing of a US embassy in Havana. The former embassy building is currently occupied by the US Interests Section , which provides a US government presence in Cuba.
Can I go to Cuba?
Not as a tourist. Travel rights are being expanded for the 12 categories of people who could already travel to Cuba with either a general or specific license. Now, people visiting family, traveling for school, journalism, research, humanitarian projects and other reasons covered under those categories only need to acquire a general license, which does not require permission or advance notification to US officials.
However, if you want to go just to be a tourist, the previous restrictions remain in place. That means getting to Cuba in the same way people have been for the past few decades – by traveling through a different country. Of course, that’s illegal .
The other good news for people who do go is that US banks will now be authorized to set up corresponding accounts at Cuban financial institutions, which will allow travelers to use US credit and debit cards in the country.
If I go, what can I bring back?
US travelers who acquire one of the two licenses required for travel can now import $400 worth of goods from Cuba – no more than $100 of which can be alcohol and tobacco products, combined. Previously, no goods of Cuban origin could be brought into the US . If you go without one of the licenses, you cannot bring back anything.
What does this mean for American businesses?
Certain industries, like technology and construction, could benefit from authorized changes to US exports. American firms will be able to export materials for use in the building of private residences and agricultural equipment for “small farmers”. Goods intended for use by “Cuban entrepreneurs”, in the private sector can also be exported, though the initial announcement does not specify the limits.
In an effort to improve the highly limited internet access in Cuba , the US is also authorizing the export of certain telecommunication items like software, applications and hardware. Providers will also be allowed to establish the infrastructure necessary for these systems to operate.
In terms of bigger changes, don’t expect American chains to start flocking to the island anytime soon. That’s because the embargo is still in place, and Obama can’t end it on his own.
Which brings us to …
Do these changes mean the embargo is lifted?
Not just yet. The embargo, which began in October 1960, cannot be lifted without congressional approval. However, these extensive changes will ease the impact of the embargo. For many years, presidents had the power to lift the embargo unilaterally, but Congress codified it in the 1990swith the Helms-Burton Act .
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