Obama Implements New Concessions to 'Make Our Opening to Cuba Irreversible'

WASHINGTON -- President Obama issued new government directives today for increased normalization of relations with Cuba, including more economic concessions that one senator called "essentially bankrolling a communist dictatorship."

The Treasury Department announced amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations and the Commerce Department amended the Export Administration Regulations, effective as of Monday.

The new rules authorize certain transactions related to Cuban pharmaceuticals, expand authorizations for grants and humanitarian services, expand authorized travel and commerce, and also are "expanding and streamlining authorizations relating to trade and commerce," according to a Treasury Department press release. "These amendments also implement certain technical and conforming changes. [Office of Foreign Assets Control]  and [Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security] are making these amendments in support of the process of normalizing bilateral relations with Cuba."

“President Obama’s historic announcement in December 2014 charted a new course for a stronger, more open U.S.-Cuba relationship,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement. “The Treasury Department has worked to break down economic barriers in areas such as travel, trade and commerce, banking, and telecommunications."

"Today’s action builds on this progress by enabling more scientific collaboration, grants and scholarships, people-to-people contact, and private sector growth. These steps have the potential to accelerate constructive change and unlock greater economic opportunity for Cubans and Americans.”

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said the amendments "will create more opportunities for Cuban citizens to access American goods and services, further strengthening the ties between our two countries."

"The United States Government will seek to expand opportunities for U.S. companies to engage with Cuba," states Obama's 12-page directive. "The embargo is outdated and should be lifted. My Administration has repeatedly called upon the Congress to lift the embargo, and we will continue to work toward that goal."

The section on human rights begins: "We will not pursue regime change in Cuba."

"We will seek to institutionalize a regular human rights dialogue with the Cuban government to advance progress on human rights. We will pursue democracy programming that is transparent and consistent with programming in other similarly situated societies around the world."

Critics have underscored that the human rights situation has gotten worse in Cuba since Washington original opened relations with the communist regime.

A senior administration official told reporters on a White House call that "we are doing everything we can to make these changes irreversible by raising the cost for anyone who would seek to turn back the clock."

"And again, we believe that this debate has largely been settled among the public and it's time for Congress to follow suit and do its part," the official said of the embargo.

Obama said his directive takes a "comprehensive and whole-of-government approach to promote engagement with the Cuban government and people, and make our opening to Cuba irreversible."

"This new directive consolidates and builds upon the changes we've already made, promotes transparency by being clear about our policy and intentions, and encourages further engagement between our countries and our people," the president said. "...Challenges remain – and very real differences between our governments persist on issues of democracy and human rights – but I believe that engagement is the best way to address those differences and make progress on behalf of our interests and values."

Senior administration officials didn't mention human rights once on the background call.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the Obama administration "is making more concessions to the Castro regime, and the United States is getting nothing in return."

"Cash makes the Castro regime's grip on power stronger, its repression harsher and its exportation of misery throughout the hemisphere, especially Venezuela, easier‎," Rubio said. "The Obama administration, in collusion with American companies, is now responsible for essentially bankrolling a communist dictatorship which works each day to undermine America's security and national interests. By encouraging U.S. companies to do business with Cuban military-owned entities, the Obama administration is giving them an open invitation to violate existing U.S. law."

In the two years since Obama's Cuba policy went into effect, Rubio addd, "the Castro regime has made out like bandits and received numerous concessions from the U.S. without lifting a finger to return the fugitives it is harboring from American justice, pay Americans for their stolen property, or allow the Cuban people to exercise their God-given freedoms."

"Today's announcement reaffirms the fact that President Obama's Cuba policy puts the Castro regime's interests first, profits ahead of America's national security, and the Cuban people's rights and dignity dead last," he said.