Most Pages In New U.S.-Cuba Chapter Still Have To Be Written
President Obama is re-opening diplomatic ties to Cuba, and easing restrictions on travel and commerce. A day after that historic announcement, we look at what it actually means for would be travelers and exporters.
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While the U.S. has opened a new chapter with Cuba, most of the pages have yet to be written. We're going to begin this hour by examining the parts of the new policy that are clear, some of the immediate effects on travel and trade. NPR's Scott Horsley outlines what's expected to happen in the near future.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Don't pack your suitcase just yet, but traveling from the U.S. to Cuba is about to get easier. The Treasury Department is relaxing requirements to qualify for licensed travel in 12 categories already permitted under U.S. law. Peggy Goldman, who runs a travel company called Friendly Planet, says those categories include education, research and athletic competition.
PEGGY GOLDMAN: You still will not be able to go and buy a ticket and spend the weekend at the beach, but you will have a lot more flexibility in going to Cuba. It opens up the possibilities hugely.
HORSLEY: By eliminating some of the bureaucracy, Goldman says, that should make getting to Cuba cheaper. What's more, visitors will no longer have to be cash for everything now that the U.S. government is allowing credit and debit card transactions.
GOLDMAN: This is going to make going to Cuba like going to Italy and once all the banking is sorted out, you'll be able to act like a regular person and not have to risk carrying all this money with you.
HORSLEY: Goldman is already hearing from travelers excited by the chance to bring home 400 dollars-worth of Cuban merchandise, including 100 dollars in cigars and alcohol.
GOLDMAN: We have people calling giddy with delight. Typically, a person will spend a week in Cuba puffing up a storm and drinking rum at every corner because they know they can't bring it back with them legally.
HORSLEY: The U.S. government will allow Cuban-Americans to send more money home to family members and it's loosening restrictions on exports.
DAVID SALMONSEN: We've been wanting these regulations changed for years.
HORSLEY: David Salmonsen is with the U.S. Farm Bureau. Cuba already buys some $350 million worth of farm products from the U.S. each year, under an exception to the embargo passed 14 years ago.
SALMONSEN: Major product, at about a $145 million a year, is frozen poultry products - chicken products in there, also substantial amounts of corn, soybeans and soybean products, wheat, pork products and then various canned consumer-ready food products.
HORSLEY: U.S. farmers have been at a competitive disadvantage though because buyers had to pay cash in advance. With those rules now relaxed, Salmonsen says, the U.S. should be able to sell more produce to Cuba's 11 million consumers.
SALMONSEN: Because of our transportation advantages being so close, very short sailing times from our major exports of New Orleans and the other southern ports to Cuba, we're at a great place to service that market.
HORSLEY: Don't count your frozen chickens before they hatch though, rewriting regulations for both travel and trade will take time. But U.S. officials are talking in terms of weeks, not months. And Laurence Allan, with the economic forecasting firm IHS, says that will pose a challenge for Cuba's existing suppliers, some of whom are an ocean away.
LAURENCE ALLAN: Those European companies that are currently operating in Cuba or exporting to Cuba obviously are going to face competition that up till now, they haven't faced.
HORSLEY: Tourists and salespeople from those other countries are a reminder. The embargo carried a cost for America as well as Cuba. As one administration spokesman said yesterday, if there's any U.S. policy that's past its expiration date, it's the isolation of Cuba. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.