President Barack Obama on Friday eased restrictions on visas, remittances and travel under the US embargo on Cuba, seeking to weaken the long grip on power of the communist Havana government. The move will expand religious and educational travel between the United States and Cuba, allow any airport to offer charter flights to the country and restore cultural initiatives suspended by the previous Bush administration.
"These measures will increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities," the White House said in a statement.
"The president believes these actions, combined with the continuation of the embargo, are important steps in reaching the widely shared goal of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens.
"These steps build upon the president's April 2009 actions to help reunite divided Cuban families; to facilitate greater telecommunications with the Cuban people; and to increase humanitarian flows to Cuba."
Obama's move means that religious organizations will be able to sponsor travel to Cuba under license and will allow higher educational institutions to send students to Cuba and restore licenses of educational exchanges.
Staff and students will also be allowed to attend conferences, seminars and workshops in Cuba and there will be more scope for journalists to travel to Cuba, according to the White House.
In another move, Obama will restore a license allowing any American to send remittances of up to 500 dollars per quarter to people in Cuba are not part of their families, as long as they are not senior Cuban government or Communist Party officials.
Obama also ordered that all US international airports will be able to provide charters to and from Cuba.
Currently, only New York, Miami and Los Angeles airports have that privilege.
The US embargo on Cuba was partially imposed in 1960, just after Fidel Castro staged his revolution, became law in 1962 and is now the biggest remaining hangover from the Cold War. The United States bans trade with and most travel to Cuba.
But Obama has the power, under legislation passed in 2000, to regulate 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba.
He used his presidential authority in 2009 to reverse the Bush administration's tightened restrictions on immediate family travel and allowed Cuban Americans to send remittances to relatives.
But he cannot lift the embargo on Cuba unless the move is authorized by Congress, an unlikely prospect.
In a first reaction, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, born in Miami to Cuba American parents who fled Castro's revolution, condemned the decision to ease restrictions.
"I strongly oppose any new changes that weaken US policy towards Cuba. I was opposed to the changes that have already been made by this administration and I oppose these new changes," Rubio said.
"I believe that what does need to change are the Cuban regime's repressive policies towards the independent press and labor unions, its imprisonment of political prisoners and constant harassment of citizens with dissenting views, and its refusal to allow free multi-party elections.
"It is unthinkable that the administration would enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people."