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*-- White Houses eases educational travel, financial restrictions on Cuba --*

WASHINGTON - The United States on Tuesday eased some restrictions placed on Cuba ahead of President Barack Obama's historic visit to the island country next week.

The U.S. Department of Treasury and Department of Commerce announced the amended restrictions would permit individuals to visit Cuba for "people-to-people educational travel," which will allow Americans to make educational visits to Cuba in tour groups and as individuals. The U.S. embargo against Cuba continues to place a tourism ban.

The changes will allow Cubans to open U.S. bank accounts and permit Cubans living in the United States to earn a salary, also making it easier for dollars to be used by Cubans.

"Today's steps build on the actions of the last 15 months as we continue to break down economic barriers, empower the Cuban people and advance their financial freedoms and chart a new course in U.S.-Cuba relations," Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a statement. "Today we are building on this progress by facilitating travel for additional Americans looking to engage with Cubans; allowing Cuban citizens to earn a salary in the United States; and expanding access to the U.S. financial system, as well as trade and commercial opportunities."

Obama announced in February he would visit Cuba, the first sitting American president in nearly a century to do so. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are scheduled to visit Cuba March 21-22.

"Our flag flies over our embassy in Havana once again. More Americans are traveling to Cuba than at any time in the last 50 years," Obama said in February. "We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world."

Former President Calvin Coolidge was the last sitting president to visit Cuba, in 1928, when the two nations were still on good diplomatic terms -- three decades before Fidel Castro's revolution.


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