U.S. eases restrictions on Cuba links as Obama visit nears

Story highlights

  • President Obama is set to visit Cuba from March 20 to 22
  • Treasury announces changes, including making it easier for American to travel to the island
  • The two countries will resume postal service on Wednesday, almost 50 years after it was cut off

Havana, Cuba (CNN)Just days before President Barack Obama is due to arrive in Cuba, the U.S. Treasury Department announced Tuesday a further loosening of restrictions, making it easier for Americans to travel to the communist-run island, or to mail a postcard home.

Ever since announcing a Cuba policy shift in December 2014, the Obama administration has eased or scrapped a myriad of Cuba sanctions -- although the U.S. economic embargo on the island, which only Congress can lift, remains in place.
While a travel ban still prevents U.S. tourism in Cuba, now U.S. travelers can engage in individual educational tours of the island. Previously, Americans had to visit the island in groups that planned out their itineraries to make sure they were complying with U.S. government regulations.
    The new regulations still require travelers to keep records that show their travel had an educational focus.
    The announcement also allows Cubans to receive salaries in the United States, paving the way for Cuban baseball players to potentially join the Major Leagues without having to defect first. Cuba and Major League Baseball have been negotiating over how Cuba's formidable players could compete in the United States without using human traffickers to smuggle them from the island.
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    The influx of American visitors has more than filled many Havana hotels and increased business for Cubans who can rent their homes to tourists.
    "We continue to break down economic barriers, empower the Cuban people and advance their financial freedom," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement.
    On Wednesday, the two countries will resume postal service, nearly five decades after direct mail service was interrupted as the United States tried to isolate the government of Fidel Castro.
    Obama will visit Cuba from March 20 to 22 and is expected to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro, speak to anti-government activists and attend a baseball game in Havana.