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Cuba plans to lift penalty on dollar, demands embargo end

epa05217225 A waiter holds up a five US dollar bill next to five Cuban Pesos in Havana, Cuba, 17 March 2016. Cuba announced that it plans to eliminate a tax that applies to the dollar, three days before the visit of US President Barack Obama.  EPA/ALEJANDRO ERNESTO

WASHINGTON / AP

Cuba’s government said 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 dismisses 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.

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