President Barack Obama's administration punched a new series of holes in the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba on Tuesday, turning a ban on U.S. tourism to Cuba into an unenforceable honor system and paving the way for more Cuban athletes to one day play Major League Baseball and other U.S. professional sports.
Five days ahead of the first presidential trip to Havana in nearly 90 years, the U.S. also eliminated a ban on Cuban access to the international banking system.
"The simple basis of our policy is that by loosening these restrictions, we are better able to engage with the Cuban people, to support them and to build bridges between our two countries," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said. "We deeply believe that this is in America's national interest."
The Cuban government made no immediate comment on the measures.
Tuesday's announcement allows Cuban citizens to earn salaries in the United States as long as they don't pay special taxes in Cuba, specifically mentioning athletes, artists and performers as potential beneficiaries. Until Tuesday, only Cubans who had begun the process of emigrating to the U.S. could legally earn money in the United States beyond a small living stipend.
Major League Baseball is negotiating with both the U.S. and Cuban government to create a legal means for Cuban baseball players to play in the U.S. without having to abandon their country, eliminating the need for some of the world's priciest baseball talent to use human traffickers to get to the major leagues.
Obama is expected to be in attendance on March 22 when the Tampa Bay Rays play the Cuban National Team in an exhibition game. The game will be televised on ESPN and ESPN Deportes. SportsCenter and Outside the Lines begin live coverage March 20 of the Rays' trip to Havana.
It will be the first visit to Cuba by an MLB team since the Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game there against the Cuban National Team in 1999.
Obama will arrive in Havana on Sunday and is expected to call for the elimination of the nearly six-decade-old trade embargo on Cuba. Meanwhile, his administration has now eliminated a once-unimaginable number of trade and travel limits through executive action. More than a year after Obama and President Raul Castro announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, U.S. companies can now manufacture goods in Cuba, export to the Cuban government and fly regularly scheduled flights to Cuba.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.