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US reportedly beginning talks to loosen Cuba embargo

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The United States plans to begin discussions with Cuba about restoring a normal diplomatic relationship between the two countries, potentially loosening the more than 50-year-long embargo held by the US, according to the Associated Press. President Obama is planning to speak about Cuba from the White House at noon, when he is expected to discuss this plan and the possibility of opening an embassy there. In a sign that talks may already be on the right track to make this happen, the US also announced today that American contractor Alan Gross has been released from a Cuban prison after five years, while the US will return three people convicted in Cuba, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Travel and trade will begin to open up

The changes would not constitute a total lifting of the US embargo on Cuba, as only Congress can formally remove it, according to CNN. Instead, Obama can use executive powers to open up certain types of trade and travel to Cuba. His plans reportedly include allowing sales and exports of communications hardware and services, building materials for entrepreneurs and homes, and additional business training services. Tourism reportedly will not be allowed under the new rules, though they will open up more room for Americans to travel to Cuba. Those travelers will also be able to bring a lot more back from the country — up to $400 worth of goods, including up to $100 of tobacco products such as cigars, according to a fact sheet released by the White House.

"None of this is seen as a reward," an administration official tells CNN. "All of this is seen as a way of promoting change in Cuba because everything we have done in the past has demonstrably failed."

The full embargo on Cuba was instated in 1962 by President Kennedy, blocking all trade between the two countries in response to its perceived communist threat. That embargo has failed to bring about changes in Cuba's government, with those opposed to the embargo arguing that it's managed to hurt Cuban citizens more than anything else. Obama has been using executive powers to make significant policy changes like this for much of his presidency, but that's been particularly true as he enters his final two years in office. While it seems unlikely that he'd be able to have Congress lift the embargo, Obama may still be able to give a much-needed refresh to the United States' relationship with Cuba.

Update: Article has been updated to include information on the White House fact sheet.