Here's What Happened in Cuba Today, and Why You Should Care

How the new era in U.S.-Cuba relations affects you—and your travel prospects
Doug Mills/Pool via Bloomberg

(Corrects nationality of U.S. intelligence agent in fourth paragraph.) 

In simultaneous speeches from Washington and Havana, the United States and Cuba announced plans on Wednesday to restore their diplomatic relationship, an historic shift marked by setting up a U.S. embassy in Havana and loosening trade and travel restrictions between the two countries.

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“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that for decades failed to advance our interests,” President Obama said in a speech. “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

The announcement will bring a slew of changes for Americans who want to visit Cuba or do business there and an even greater transformation for Cubans living on the island. Here’s what you need to know: 

Alan Gross, a former Cuban prisoner released on humanitarian grounds, left, arrives with his wife Judy Gross to a news conference on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Why is this happening today?

Before coming to office in 2008, Obama said he wanted to revisit the icy cold relationship with Cuba, but a couple of critical issues stood in the way of a diplomatic breakthrough—most significantly: an American citizen and a U.S. agent imprisoned on Cuban soil. Those obstacles disappeared today. Alan Gross, an American contractor who spent five years in a Cuban prison after being convicted for importing Internet equipment that a Cuban court said was designed to “destroy the revolution,” was released on Wednesday on humanitarian grounds. An unnamed U.S. intelligence agent, who helped identify a network of Cubans who were ultimately convicted of spying, was also released after spending two decades in prison. In return, U.S. officials released three of the five members of the network who were still confined.

What does the Pope have to do with it? 

Pope Francis wrote letters to Obama and Raul Castro, pleading with the leaders to release both Alan Gross and the Cubans imprisoned for espionage. He also reportedly offered up the Vatican as the site for the final meeting between representatives of Obama and Castro, who were in talks for over a year. The blessing from on high seems to have been crucial, partly because some four in 10 Cubans identify as Roman Catholic. Both leaders gave the Pope shout-outs in the “acknowledgements section” of their speeches. Obama thanked the Pope, “whose moral example shows us importance of pursuing the world as it should be,” and Castro acknowledged the “support of the Vatican” for the “betterment of the relations between Cuba and the U.S.”

Who's happy about this? And who's not? 

Judging by recent surveys, most Americans agree with the president. In a 2009 survey, two-thirds of Americans said they wanted to have a normal diplomatic relationship with Cuba, up from just 38 percent 10 years earlier. Some in Congress are less thrilled. Said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): “Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom.” Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement issued on Wednesday that "President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government." Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the move a "dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.” 

Great. So how soon can I book a flight directly to Cuba?

Hold your horses. The new rules don’t allow Americans to travel to Cuba as tourists. They make it easier for people who can already travel to Cuba to do so, including Cubans visiting family members, people going on educational trips, humanitarian ones, or even for athletic events. Anyone who can prove that their visit falls under one of 12 categories, listed here, will be eligible for a general license allowing them to bypass the bureaucratic headache entailed in obtaining a so-called “specific license,” for which some travelers in these categories had to apply before the new rules were instated.     

How will this affect my Cuban cigar collection? 

Even though the new rules don’t let American tourists travel freely to Cuba, they do let Americans who travel to Cuba for other reasons act more like tourists. You can bring home $400 worth of Cuban goods now, and yes, you can bring back cigars—$100 worth. If you find yourself in Cuba legally, you can now use credit cards or debit cards, according to the new regulations. Previously, you needed to bring a pile of cash, unless you happened to have an international bank account.