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U.S. further eases restrictions on Cuba trade, travel

WASHINGTON -- Americans traveling to Cuba will be allowed to bring home more of the communist-ruled island's coveted cigars and rum under new measures announced by the U.S. government on Friday to further ease trade, travel and financial restrict...

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Cuban cigars for sale are on display at a hotel in Havana December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa/File Photo

WASHINGTON - Americans traveling to Cuba will be allowed to bring home more of the communist-ruled island's coveted cigars and rum under new measures announced by the U.S. government on Friday to further ease trade, travel and financial restrictions that have been in place for decades.

The steps are part of President Barack Obama's effort to make his historic opening to Cuba "irreversible" by the time he leaves office in January.

The latest in a series of new rules since the two former Cold War foes began normalizing relations in 2014 will allow export to Cuba of some U.S. consumer goods sold online, open the door to Cuban pharmaceutical companies to do business in the United States and let Cubans and Americans engage in joint medical research.

For the average American traveler, the biggest change is the removal of limits on the amount of rum and cigars they can pack in their luggage for personal use. The administration partially lifted the ban in 2015, allowing Americans to bring back $100 in alcohol and tobacco products. Now they can come home with as much as they want as long as they pay duties and taxes.

U.S. law still bans general tourism to Cuba, but the administration has used previous regulatory packages to make it easier for Americans to visit the island under 12 officially authorized categories.

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The latest measures are part of an executive order on Cuba through which Obama seeks to sidestep the Republican-controlled Congress, which has resisted his call to lift Washington's economic embargo after more than 50 years.

Republican critics say Obama has made too many concessions to Cuba for too little in return, especially on human rights issues.

Other changes announced on Friday include allowing Cuban pharmaceutical companies to apply for U.S. regulatory approval, letting U.S. firms improve Cuban infrastructure for humanitarian purposes and authorizing them to provide safety-related aircraft services in Cuba, where U.S. airlines are beginning regularly scheduled flights.

To boost U.S.-Cuba trade, Washington was also lifting a prohibition on foreign ships from entering a U.S. port to load or unload cargo for 180 days after calling on a Cuban port, according to a joint statement from U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments.

The announcement, less than a month before the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, represents Obama's effort to normalize ties between Washington and Havana as much as he can before his term ends.

"Today, I approved a Presidential Policy Directive that takes another major step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with Cuba," Obama said in a statement, adding that his goal was to "make our opening to Cuba irreversible."

A senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said the administration wants to lock in benefits from the new Cuba policy for U.S. citizens and companies and make it impossible for any future president to "turn back the clock."

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton backs the policy of rapprochement with Havana. Republican Donald Trump has vowed to roll back Obama's executive actions.

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