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The United States is removing Cuba from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient security in their ports, eliminating a major impediment to free flow of ships in the Florida Straits. The move marks one more step toward normalized relations ahead of President Barack Obama's historic trip to Cuba.
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.
The Coast Guard, in a notice released Thursday, said Cuba now has effective security measures in its ports. The U.S. also is removing the requirement that American vessels maintain a higher level of security for access to ships while in Cuban ports.
Obama has been easing restrictions on U.S. travel and commerce in Cuba since he and Cuban President Raul Castro moved to restore relations between the two longtime foes. Obama has picked up the pace in the days ahead of his trip to Havana, which starts Sunday. It's the first presidential visit to the communist country in nearly 90 years.
U.S. cruise lines including Carnival are gearing up to start sailing to Cuba as Americans, long prevented from traveling to Cuba under the U.S. trade embargo, take advantage of the relaxed travel restrictions that Obama has put in place. The Obama administration has started giving approval to U.S. cruise lines to operate there, though they need corresponding approval from the U.S. government.
Millions of Americans are expected to visit Cuba in the coming years in a sharp increase, although a formal U.S. ban on tourism technically remains in effect.
"The travel ban is on life support here, because for all intents and purposes, anybody can go," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., adding that travelers could "even use frequent flier miles."
The requirements being lifted restricted any vessels that had been in Cuba during their last five ports of call. Those requirements included boarding of all ships by Coast Guard officials before entering U.S. ports.
Other countries on the list include Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iran.
Any American can now travel to Cuba under 12 categories of legally permissible purposes, which include professional, religious and journalistic activities. Of the 12, the one that will get the most use is "educational activities."
In the past, Americans using that option had to travel on organized, group tours through a company licensed by the U.S. Those tours were costly and allowed visitors less flexibility. The new rules allow Americans to take "people-to-people" educational trips on their own, and they don't need to seek U.S. permission in advance.
Source: The Associated Press