WASHINGTON -- The United States removed Cuba on Thursday from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient security in their ports, eliminating a major impediment to free flow of ships in the Florida Straits. The move marks one more step toward normalized relations ahead of President Barack Obama's historic trip to Cuba.
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.
The Coast Guard, in an advisory on global port security, said Cuba now has effective security measures in its ports. That certification also removes the requirement that American vessels maintain a higher level of security for access to ships while in Cuban ports.
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.
Other countries on the list include Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iran.
Obama has been easing restrictions on U.S. travel and commerce in Cuba since he and Cuban President Raul Castro moved to restore relations between their two countries. Obama has quickened the pace in the days ahead of his trip to Havana, which starts Sunday. It's the first U.S. presidential visit to the communist country in nearly 90 years.
Ahead of his trip, the Obama administration this week lifted the last meaningful restrictions on Americans visiting the island by allowing people to travel individually for loosely defined educational trips designed to increase interaction between Americans and Cubans. The U.S. also cleared the way for Cubans to earn salaries in the U.S. in most circumstances, a move that could lead to Cubans playing Major League Baseball and other professional sports one day soon.
U.S. cruise lines including Carnival are gearing up to start sailing to Cuba as Americans, long prevented from traveling to Cuba under the U.S. trade embargo, take advantage of the relaxed travel restrictions that Obama has put in place. The Obama administration has started giving approval to U.S. cruise lines to operate there, though they need corresponding approval from the U.S. government.
Millions of Americans are expected to visit Cuba in the coming years in a sharp increase, although a formal U.S. ban on tourism technically remains in effect.
Recognizing that many Cuban-Americans and others oppose his approach, Obama hopes to use his trip and the changes his administration has announced 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, as part of a pilot program.
Among the letters aboard that flight was one from Obama, who used the occasion to highlight his goals for the trip. Responding to a 76-year-old Cuban woman who had written him, Obama wrote that he hoped his note "serves as a reminder of a bright new chapter in the relationship between our two nations."
"Hopefully, I will have time to enjoy a cup of Cuban coffee," Obama wrote in a copy of the letter released by the White House.
The security measures lifted Thursday had applied to any vessels that been in Cuba during its last five ports of call. Those requirements included boarding or inspection of all ships by Coast Guard officials to ensure compliance prior to entering U.S. ports.
Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.