Washington: President Barack Obama eased restrictions on visas, remittances and travel under the US embargo on Cuba, in a bid 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 organisations 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 USD 500 per quarter to people in Cuba who 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 authorised 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 authorised by Congress, an unlikely prospect.
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.
"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."
Another Cuba-American in Congress, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also criticised the moves.
"Loosening these regulations will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba," said. "They certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them."
But Democratic Senator John Kerry called the actions "an important step" and said they "open the way for the goodwill of citizens of both countries to forge deeper ties that are in our national interest today and in the future."
"After 50 years of embargo against Cuba... it`s time to try something different," Kerry said.
A senior US administration said that the actions represented "not an engagement with Cuban government, this is an engagement with Cuban people”.