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This Is What Obama's Huge Announcement On Cuba Really Means

In a surprise move, the Obama administration is about to make the biggest shift in policy towards Cuba in two generations. Here's what you need to know.

Posted on December 17, 2014, at 2:12 p.m. ET

The Obama administration on Wednesday announced that after more than 50 years, the U.S. would be overhauling its policies toward Cuba.


The most visible sign of the U.S.'s stance on Cuba since 1960 — the year after Communist leader Fidel Castro took control of the island — has been the economic embargo on Cuba, blockading most travel and nearly all trade to the island country.

Desmond Boylan / Reuters

After the embargo was put into place, a failed U.S. attempt to launch a counterrevolution against Castro at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis sowed mistrust between the two countries that has lasted for decades.

Desmond Boylan / Reuters

Tourists at the Bay of Pigs, Cuba.

The U.S. isn't fully lifting the embargo now. But under the newly announced rules, the U.S. will allow export of goods to be used by Cuba's fledgling private sector.

Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

That includes, according to the White House, "certain building materials for private residential construction, goods for use by private sector Cuban entrepreneurs, and agricultural equipment for small farmers." The goal is to "make it easier for Cuban citizens to have access to certain lower-priced goods to improve their living standards" and depend less on the Cuban government for things.

(For those asking, yes, Americans will now be allowed to import Cuban cigars and rum, but no more than $100 worth.)


The embargo has for years been opposed internationally — particularly since the Cold War ended in 1991. Recently, there's been a shift inside the U.S. too.

Andrew Innerarity / Reuters

Since 1961, the two countries have also had no official diplomatic ties. Now the State Department is launching talks to restore those ties and open an embassy in Havana.

Of course, Cuba has no embassy stateside, but the Cuban Interests Section on 16th St in DC is a de facto embassy:

David A. Graham@GrahamDavidAFollow

Of course, Cuba has no embassy stateside, but the Cuban Interests Section on 16th St in DC is a de facto embassy:

11:25 AM - 17 Dec 14ReplyRetweetFavorite

One of the things that will change under the new rules: some of the restrictions on travel. When Jay Z and Beyoncé went to Havana last year, it was under the auspices of a special kind of visa.

AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

The American royal family went to Cuba under what's called a "people-to-people" license, designed to facilitate cultural exchange between Americans and Cubans. Because of that, they were forced to forgo most touristy things in favor of a strictly adhered to schedule of things like walking tours of Havana's architecture.

Side note: Jay Z actually released a diss track reacting to the uproar over his trip.

The U.S. will also review Cuba's status as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation that's been in place since 1982 thanks to its Cold War-era support of communist rebels in Africa and Latin America.

Enrique De La Osa / Reuters

Cuban President Raul Castro

This isn't the first set of adjustments that the Obama administration has made toward U.S.-Cuba policy since taking office, but it is certainly the biggest.


Back in 2009, the White House announced that it was lifting the ban on travel for family members visiting Cuba and restrictions on remittances paid back to family members still living on the island. The U.S. also freed telecommunications providers to work with Cuban comms companies and added some humanitarian items to the list of those things able to be shipped to Cuba.

The AP has recently revealed how USAID tried to foment dissent through a U.S.-built "Cuban Twitter," as well as by trying to co-opt Cuban hip-hop artists. On Wednesday, USAID director Rajiv Shah resigned, but it's unclear if the two are related.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

American USAID contractor Alan Gross, whom Cuba had accused of spying, also returned home as part of a separate deal. The U.S. also swapped three convicted Cuban spies for a U.S. intelligence asset and Cuba agreed to release 53 political prisoners.

The Associated Press

But congressional Republicans — and some Democrats — are unhappy with the policy shift. GOP senators are already promising to block funding for embassy work and any U.S. ambassador to Cuba's confirmation.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

So those of you who have always wanted to legally own a Cuban cigar: Welcome to the future.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.