President Barack Obama had a rare telephone conversation Friday with Cuban President Paul Castro after the United States eased restrictions on travel and business on the communist country.
The White House said the two leaders also spoke about Pope Francis' upcoming visit to their nations and said they commended the pope's role in "advancing relations between our countries." The pope helped facilitate the talks between the United States and Cuba that led to this year's re-establishment of diplomatic relations.
Castro's office said he reiterated his call that the United States end the embargo on Cuba in full and stressed the need to "deepen the reach" of diplomatic measures taken so far.
The White House said the two leaders discussed ways to "advance bilateral cooperation, even as we will continue to have differences on important issues and will address those differences candidly."
The easing of travel and business restrictions on Cuba marked another notable advance in the thawing of bilateral relations. Both countries also want to establish direct postal service.
Senior administration officials called the easing of restrictions “a major step” in U.S.-Cuba relations in a conference call with reporters Friday. Officials said the move was “intended to strengthen employment opportunities for Cubans” and would be “an effective way to empower Cubans.”
The changes in U.S. Treasury and Commerce regulations will allow for increased travel opportunities to Cuba for Americans, provide Cubans with access to telecommunications and promote growth of business opportunities within Cuba.
“The president firmly believes that allowing increased travel, commerce and the flow of information to, from and within Cuba will allow the U.S. to better advance its interests and improve the lives of ordinary Cubans,” said a senior administration official.
The changes — effective September 21— ease licensing for certain U.S. entities to operate within Cuba, including news bureaus, educational and religious organizations, and telecommunications companies. Certain classes of goods, including telecommunications and software, can now be shipped into Cuba.
Close relatives in some authorized travel categories will now be allowed to travel to Cuba. Cargo, passenger and some recreational vessels will also be allowed to travel to Cuba under a general license. Senior administration officials said they did not “see these moves as a chipping away at tourism restrictions.” General tourist travel to Cuba remains prohibited.
“A stronger, more open U.S.-Cuba relationship has the potential to create economic opportunities for both Americans and Cubans alike,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said earlier.
Administration officials said the easing of restrictions was not timed to coincide with the visit of Pope Francis.
The easing comes two months after the formal restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana and the day after Cuba announced it would appoint its first ambassador to the United States in 54 years.