Cuba plans to lift penalty on U.S. dollar, demands embargo end
March 17, 2016
15, 2016. Five days ahead of the first presidential trip to Havana in nearly 90 years, the U.S. eliminated a ban on Cuban access to the international banking system. The inability to send or receive payments that passed even momentarily through the U.S. banking system had crippled the country's ability to trade with third countries and became a major hindrance to the U.S. attempt to normalize relations with Cuba.
By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN and JOSH LEDERMAN / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON – Cuba’s government said Thursday it plans to do away with a penalty on converting U.S. dollars, but warned the Obama administration not to expect more changes until the U.S. trade embargo is lifted.
Three days before President Barack Obama visits the island, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez dismissed Obama’s lofty rhetoric about using his visit to speak directly to the Cuban people about their future. In a stern and lengthy speech in Havana, he put Obama on notice that any attempt to circumvent the Cuban government by lobbying Cubans directly would not be warmly received.
“Various U.S. officials have declared in recent hours that the objective of Obama’s measures is empowering the Cuban people. The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago,” Rodriguez said, referring to the 1959 revolution that put the current Cuban government in power.
Of Obama’s talk about engaging directly with Cubans, he added, “It’s a nonsense approach.”
Still, Rodriguez laid out a scenario under which the 10 percent penalty on dollars exchanged at banks and money-changers in Cuba would soon be lifted, making it easier and cheaper for Americans to spend time in Cuba.
Earlier this week the U.S. lifted a ban on Cuban access to the international banking system, a longstanding Cuban demand. Rodriguez told reporters in the Cuban capital that Cuba will attempt a series of international transactions in coming days. If they work, Cuba will eliminate the 10 percent penalty.
The tough talk from the Cuban government came as Obama prepared for a history-making trip to Havana aimed at cementing the normalization in relations that he and Cuban President Raul Castro began. Though Cuba’s government is hungry for more U.S. investment, it is also wary of increased U.S. influence and frustrated that Obama has been unable to get Congress to lift longstanding U.S. sanctions.
Rodriguez lamented the remaining limits imposed by U.S. sanctions, as he downplayed Obama’s efforts to unilaterally ease economic restrictions.
While in Havana, Obama plans to give a major speech that the White House has said will focus on the future of U.S.-Cuba ties and how Cubans can pursue a better life. Announcing that Obama’s speech would be carried live on Cuban television, Rodriguez said Cubans would be able to draw their own conclusions from the president.
In pushing back against Obama, the Cuban minister signaled that the Castro government will be closely watching Obama on his visit for signs of meddling in Cuba’s affairs. Obama has said they don’t expect Cuba to change overnight but that more interaction with Americans would help Cubans help themselves.
Though Cuban officials are prone to bouts of anti-American rhetoric, Rodriguez’s speech ahead of Obama’s visit was particularly piercing. White House officials have downplayed concerns about such antagonistic comments, including a scathing editorial that appeared this month in a state-run newspaper laying out Cuba’s list of grievances against the U.S.
The Obama administration’s latest attempt to ease restrictions on Cuba despite the embargo came earlier Thursday when the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient security in their ports, eliminating a major impediment to the free flow of ships in the Florida Straits.
The shift clears the way for U.S. cruise ships, cargo vessels and even ferries to travel back and forth with much less hassle. No longer will all ships have to wait to be boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard for inspections, though the Coast Guard still can conduct random inspections.
Removing Cuba’s designation under rules designed to fight terrorism also addresses a sore spot in the painful history between Cuba and the U.S., which dominated the island before relations were cut off amid the Cold War. After all, it was only last year that the U.S. removed Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Obama hopes to use his trip to Cuba – the first by a sitting president in nearly 90 years – to lock in as much progress as possible between the U.S. and Cuba before he leaves office. On Wednesday, a flight carrying mail directly to Cuba took off from the U.S. for the first time in half a century, as part of a pilot program.
Among the letters aboard that flight was one from Obama, who used the occasion to highlight his goals for the trip. Responding to a 76-year-old Cuban woman who had written him, Obama wrote that he hoped his note “serves as a reminder of a bright new chapter in the relationship between our two nations.”
“Hopefully, I will have time to enjoy a cup of Cuban coffee,” Obama wrote to Ileana Yarza in a letter released by the White House. At her Havana home, Yarza told The Associated Press she was eagerly awaiting the letter and charmed by Obama’s “gentlemanliness.”