The Post's Katie Zezima breaks down the practical implications of the new U.S. policy toward Cuba, including travel, trade and bringing back Cuban rum and cigars. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

The Obama administration announced new rules easing travel and trade restrictions against Cuba on Thursday, moving quickly to implement steps the president ordered less than a month ago when he said the United States would reestablish diplomatic relations with the island’s communist government.

Freed from cumbersome requirements to obtain a Treasury Department license, individual Americans will be able to travel to Cuba provided they say the trip is intended to serve religious, educational or other approved purposes under the still-standing U.S. embargo. When they return, they can bring up to $400 in Cuban goods, including $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco.

U.S. airlines will be allowed to fly scheduled routes to Cuba for the first time in decades. ­Non-Cuban Americans can send up to $8,000 a year to any Cuban national, and Cuban relatives can send as much as they want. Long-standing restrictions on what Cuba can buy from this country are to be eased in certain specified areas, along with rules on how Cuba can pay for U.S. exports.

The new rules, which go into effect Friday, are President Obama’s latest use of executive authority to achieve a policy goal without involving Congress. Many lawmakers across partisan lines agree with him that a half-
century of isolation from the American people and goods have failed to move Cuba toward democracy or assist civil society or the still highly restricted private sector there.

A relative handful, led by Cuban American senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), have called the measures an undeserved gift to Raúl Castro, who took over as president from his ailing brother Fidel nearly a decade ago, and said the moves stretch the embargo laws past the breaking point.

Where U.S.-Cuba relations stand and what may change

Treasury, State and Commerce officials who briefed reporters insisted that existing sanctions regulations were being “amended” rather than done away with. “We worked very closely with departments and agencies to ensure that we acted in accordance with all relevant laws,” a senior administration official said.

“We believe these initiatives are going to help accelerate a process of transformation” in Cuba, said another official, who like several others spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration.

The official acknowledged that major changes on the island are not expected overnight. “We’re talking about a long-term pro­cess,” he said.

Obama has also said he will work with Congress to lift the overall embargo and will review Cuba’s 32-year-old designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

“Cuba has real potential for economic growth,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement, “and by increasing travel, commerce, communications, and private business development between the United States and Cuba, the United States can help the Cuban people determine their own future.”

The administration was eager to put the new rules in place before next week’s scheduled visit to Havana by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson for talks on reestablishing diplomatic relations. The step-by-step normalization process was agreed upon after 18 months of secret U.S.-Cuba talks. It included last month’s exchange of imprisoned spies and the release of U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, who had been jailed for five years for distributing U.S.-funded computer equipment in Cuba.

The administration also confirmed last week that Cuba had complied with its request to release 53 political prisoners.

Although Cuba has officially welcomed the changes, U.S. officials are unsure how far its government is willing to go in opening its doors to American visitors and trade. Even if Havana decides it wants to buy agricultural and medical goods, build new telecommunications infrastructure to give it greater access to the Internet, and buy construction materials to expand the private sector — areas that have now been newly expanded — the lackluster state of its economy may limit its ability to take advantage of the offer.

As the new provisions were being announced, the Cuban government was holding a chat forum about Internet access on a state-run site called Cubadebate. The invitation generated hundreds of questions and comments, many of them apparently from Web-starved Cubans wanting to know whether the new U.S. rules will help them get online.

Some cut right to the question of whether their security-minded government will ever allow American companies to help develop Web infrastructure on the island.

“I think we should allow foreign investment in telecommunications,” said one user whose handle, Carlos_Uci, suggested he was a student at the country’s top technology university. “If we don’t, we’ll be waiting 30 years for Internet access at home with accessible prices.”

Government officials replied to this and similar queries that their goal was to expand Web access on the island as quickly and inexpensively as possible as new investments are made. Without offering many specifics, they said Obama’s new measures would have a “positive” effect.

Beginning with the embargo enacted in 1960, a series of laws whose provisions have ebbed and flowed over the years have prevented most Americans from traveling to and trading with Cuba. Travel is not expressly prohibited but is effectively banned under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, which makes it illegal for Americans to spend money there.

Exceptions are made for those granted a Treasury Department license in 12 categories of travel deemed to further U.S. humanitarian and policy goals. Tourism is not on the list.

In practice, that has generally meant that U.S. citizens could go only as part of a group that was granted a license for an approved purpose. Now travelers can simply go if they declare when making charter or commercial reservations that their purpose is one of the 12 authorized categories. The Treasury Department reserves the right to investigate whether an individual has kept to that agenda and can ask for documentary proof up to five years after travel.

But such investigations have been rare, even under the previous rules, and many experts agreed that the door to widespread travel has now been opened.

Trade restrictions remain on most goods but have been eased to allow increased export of building materials and U.S. telecommunications and other technological goods to Cuba. Agricultural and medical supplies already were allowed, but only with a specific license and on a cash-in-advance basis. Now, specific licenses are not required, and a cash payment will be due only when goods arrive at a Cuban port.

U.S. banks will be allowed to establish correspondent accounts in Cuba, and travelers, traders and those sending remittances can use credit and debit cards in Cuba.

Commercial sales to private-sector economic activity in Cuba will no longer require approval from the Commerce Department. Commerce licenses will also no longer be needed for items sent to civil-society or human rights groups in Cuba, or for donations for cultural, scientific or sporting use.

Brian Murphy and Nick Miroff contributed to this report.