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Sweet: Thanks to relaxed rules, Emanuels on 10-day Cuba trip

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WASHINGTON — Mayor Rahm Emanuel is in Cuba this week, traveling with his family under new, relaxed tourism rules put in place for all U.S. citizens since President Barack Obama announced a thaw in tensions between the nations a year ago.

Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, departed Chicago on Friday for what will be a 10-day trip.

Despite the new era, U.S. citizens can’t just go to Cuba to spend the entire time loafing on a beach or wandering around the island on a whim.

Travel must be for one of 12 allowable categories of activities, and travelers are supposed to go with a planned itinerary.

Emanuel and his family are traveling with the specific purpose of “educational activities,” City Hall told me — one of the dozen allowable categories.

A spokesman said the Emanuels’ days will be “jam packed” with “cultural and educational visits.”

Each year, Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule, take their three kids — Zach, a student at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Ilana and Leah, who attend the University of Chicago Lab School — on an international winter vacation. They are in Cuba with a group of other families whom they regularly go on trips with, City Hall said.

OPINION

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Last Thursday marked exactly one year since Obama and Cuba President Raul Castro struck a deal to re-establish diplomatic ties and take other steps to normalize relations.

In marking the anniversary, Obama said: “Today, the Stars and Stripes again fly over our embassy in Havana. Today, more Americans are visiting Cuba and engaging the Cuban people than at any time in the last 50 years.

“We continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but we raise those issues directly, and we will always stand for human rights and the universal values that we support around the globe,” Obama said.

“Change does not happen overnight, and normalization will be a long journey. The last 12 months, however, are a reminder of the progress we can make when we set the course toward a better future. Over the next year, we will continue on this path, empowering Cubans and Americans to lead the way,” the president added.

The Emanuel family is part of that first wave touring Cuba under this renewed engagement, even as the 55-year-old Cuba trade embargo remains in place.

Under the old rules, a person who wanted to travel to Cuba would have to apply to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for a license. That process could take months.

Under the new rules, which started to roll out last January, a person no longer has to ask OFAC for specific permission. A general license is automatically granted as long as one simply states on a form the travel to Cuba falls under one of 12 specific categories. Cuba travelers are responsible for keeping records and receipts for five years — just in case.

The categories are, according to the White House: family visits; official government business; journalistic activity; professional research or meetings; educational or religious activities; public performances or athletic and other competitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations, research, or educational institutions.

The other two categories cover “exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials” and certain authorized export transactions.

Obama said he is contemplating a Cuba trip before he leaves office. Last week he told Yahoo News Chief Washington Correspondent Olivier Knox he hopes to visit Cuba, but only if Castro has no strings attached. “If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody,” Obama told Knox.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Secretary of State John Kerry already have visited Cuba. Kerry was there in August to mark the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Pritzker was there in October to encourage private sector growth and spur entrepreneurship; Vilsack’s trip was in November.

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