US relaxes Cuba trade, travel rules ahead of Obama visit

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WASHINGTON -- The United States on Tuesday announced it would further loosen travel restrictions on Cuba and ease limits on the use of U.S. dollars in trade transactions there just days ahead of President Barack Obama's historic visit to the former Cold War enemy.

The new rules reinforce Obama's move away from the long-standing U.S. economic embargo against Cuba by using his executive powers to sidestep U.S. lawmakers who so far have refused to lift sanctions toward the Communist-ruled country.

The changes allow Cubans to open U.S. bank accounts and authorize those living in the Unites States to earn a salary or compensation, the U.S. government said. They also allow individuals to visit the island for "people-to-people educational travel," instead of requiring them to go in group tours.

The easing comes as Obama prepares to travel on March 20-22 to Cuba, 90 miles (145 km) from Florida's coast. No sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba in the last 88 years.

The latest package marks one of the most significant changes since Obama announced this historic opening to Cuba in December 2014 after decades of hostility between the two countries.

"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," U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement.

Although as many as 20 members of Congress are set to travel with the president starting on Sunday, the Republican-led body has not moved to support Obama's policy shift by lifting sanctions.

Instead, the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments said in a statement they would enact a range of changes to provide access to U.S. financial transactions for Cubans as well as broaden access to the island for others.

The new rules will increase ability of Cubans in United States to earn stipends and salaries beyond living expenses, the departments said. The changes also allow humanitarian and other entities supporting the Cuban people to establish a presence there, they said.

The administration earlier eased rules to allow scheduled air service between the two countries.

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