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Cuba to lift penalty on dollar but warns Obama not to meddle

WASHINGTON – Cuba’s government said Thursday it plans to do away with a penalty on converting U.S. dollars inside the country, but offered a tough rebuke of President Barack Obama’s plans to use his upcoming visit to promote change on the island.

In a stern and lengthy speech in Havana, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez dismissed Obama’s lofty rhetoric about speaking directly to the Cuban people about their future during his trip, which starts Sunday. Aside from lifting the currency penalty, Rodriguez offered no indication that Cuba would respond to Obama’s recent policy changes with corresponding steps of its own, adding that little can happen until Congress lifts the trade embargo entirely.

“Various U.S. officials have declared in recent hours that the objective of Obama’s measures is empowering the Cuban people. The Cuban people empowered themselves decades ago,” Rodriguez said, referring to the 1959 revolution that put the current Cuban government in power.

Of the continuing U.S. ban on tourism to Cuba, he added, “It’s a nonsense approach.”

Still, Rodriguez laid out a scenario under which the 10 per cent penalty on dollars exchanged at banks and money-changers in Cuba would soon be lifted, making it easier and cheaper for Americans to spend time in Cuba.

Earlier this week the U.S. lifted a ban on Cuban access to the international banking system, a longstanding Cuban demand. Rodriguez told reporters in the Cuban capital that Cuba will attempt a series of international transactions in coming days. If they work, Cuba will eliminate the 10 per cent penalty.

The tough talk from the Cuban government came as Obama prepared for a history-making trip to Havana aimed at cementing the normalization in relations that he and Cuban President Raul Castro began. Though Cuba’s government is hungry for more U.S. investment, it is also wary of increased U.S. influence and frustrated that Obama has been unable to get Congress to lift longstanding U.S. sanctions.

Rodriguez lamented the remaining limits imposed by U.S. sanctions, as he downplayed Obama’s efforts to unilaterally ease economic restrictions.

While in Havana, Obama plans to give a major speech that the White House has said will focus on the future of U.S.-Cuba ties and how Cubans can pursue a better life. Announcing that Obama’s speech would be carried live on Cuban television, Rodriguez said Cubans would be able to draw their own conclusions from the president.

Nationalist, anti-embargo rhetoric is a feature of Cuban government statements. Yet Rodriguez’s speech — just three days before Obama’s visit — was striking for its strong language and acid tone.

White House officials have downplayed concerns about such antagonistic comments, including a lengthy editorial that appeared this month in a state-run newspaper laying out Cuba’s list of grievances against the U.S.

The Obama administration’s latest attempt to ease restrictions on Cuba despite the embargo came earlier Thursday when the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient security in their ports, eliminating a major impediment to the free flow of ships in the Florida Straits.

The shift clears the way for U.S. cruise ships, cargo vessels and even ferries to travel back and forth with much less hassle. No longer will all ships have to wait to be boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard for inspections, though the Coast Guard still can conduct random inspections.

Removing Cuba’s designation under rules designed to fight terrorism also addresses a sore spot in the painful history between Cuba and the U.S., which dominated the island before relations were cut off amid the Cold War. After all, it was only last year that the U.S. removed Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Obama hopes to use his trip to Cuba — the first by a sitting president in nearly 90 years — to lock in as much progress as possible between the U.S. and Cuba before he leaves office. On Wednesday, a flight carrying mail directly to Cuba took off from the U.S. for the first time in half a century, taking with it a reply from Obama to a 76-year-old Cuban woman who had written him a letter.

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Weissenstein reported from Havana. Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.

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