Obama administration lifts some travel restrictions to Cuba

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The Obama administration is going to make travel to Cuba easier than it has been in decades, the BBC reports. Students and religious groups will now be allowed to go to the Caribbean nation, which has not had normal relations with the U.S. since Fidel Castro overthrew the pro-American government in 1959.

Specifically, religious groups will be able to sponsor “religious travel” to Cuba, and Cuban religious organizations will be able to receive remittances from the U.S. Universities and colleges will be able to send students there for educational purposes. Both of these groups will now be able to fly from U.S. airports on chartered flights.

The trade embargo will remain in place, although that was also lightened in 2009 when Obama allowed Cuban-Americans to go visit family and send money. Under the new rules coming into place, any U.S. citizen will be able to send up to $500 per fiscal quarter to non-family members in Cuba to help fund private business projects.

While Americans have been able to travel to Cuba relatively easily by going through third countries, this makes things a lot more straightforward. You still can’t buy Cuban cigars legally in the U.S., but if you meet the criteria you can now enjoy an ice cream like this guy in a photo by user localsurfer from Gadling’s flickr pool.

The reason for these measures is pretty obvious. Having been unable to assassinate Castro or get him deposed over the past 51 years, and having seen that the embargo hasn’t led to regime change, the U.S. government is trying a more subtle approach. By encouraging contacts with religious groups and the intelligentsia, and by funding private enterprise through remittances, Obama hopes to encourage change from within.

Airport contraband featured in Lever House Art Exhibition

Go to Manhattan‘s Lever House, and you may see that lighter – or hand grenade – that was taken from you a JFK airport. Through the end of the year, the free exhibition will consist of photographs taken by Taryn Simon of items seized from passengers and mail packages coming into the United States. She spent five days clicking away at more than 1,000 items.

The exhibition, called “Contraband,” includes everything you’d expect to find at JFK: Cuban cigars, pirated DVDs, bongs and hand grenades. Also, there were animal parts and heroin. You’ll have to decide for yourself what’s strangest, but here are MSNBC’s thoughts:

So what’s the strangest thing in Simon’s new “Contraband” show? Hard to say, but the horse sausage and cow manure tooth powder have to be up at the top of the list.

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[photo by 16 Miles of String via Flickr]

Cuba door cracks slightly

President Barack Obama has announced that restrictions on travel to Cuba are about to become looser. But, it’s not time for cigar smokers across the United States begin to rejoice yet. So far, the measure will only allow Cuban-Americans with family on the island to visit, and Obama has stated that he supports the embargo.

The change in travel restrictions is part of a $410 billion spending bill approved by the Senate late Tuesday. It had already passed the House of Representatives and was signed by the president yesterday. The new law permits annual travel (rather than once every three years, under the Bush Administration‘s program) and increases a visitor’s allowable daily spend from $50 a day to $179 a day.

This is a small move, but by virtue of its involving Cuba, it becomes substantial. Bringing families back together, at least once a year, is a step in some right direction, whatever it may be.

Light Up in Montreal

Most cigar smokers know what they want when border-crossings are involved: Cubans. Stepping through customs onto foreign soil, you can feel the pull to the nearest tobacconist. Maybe you drop your bags off at the hotel first, but that’s about it. As our nearest neighbor-at least from my part of the country-Canada is the top destination for Cuban cigars. In Montreal, go to the right shop instead of the closest one, and you will actually enjoy the results. La Casa del Habano should be at the top of your list.

Montreal is a world-class city, with top-tier dining, luxurious accommodations and a festival scene that includes independent film, comedy and the fine arts. If you’re on your way to Canada, Montreal should be your top priority, even beyond Vancouver and Toronto. There is a draw beyond illicit cigars, but for the cigar smoker who “just happens to be in town,” the fellowship of the leaf is a powerful force.

You have to be careful with Cuban cigars in Montreal. Counterfeits abound north of the border, and unfortunately, many smokers rush to the nearest cigar seller-specialist or not. The cigars may snap, burn unevenly or unwind … but who cares? They’re Cuban! Right?

If you’re a vanity smoker-showing off the label rather than enjoying the tobacco-then just hit the Duty Free store before you leave Dorval Airport. But, if you appreciate the complexity of a well-blended, property constructed stick, be patient. Grab a quick shower and a bite to eat before heading over to La Casa del Habano, Montreal’s premier smoking lounge.

Unlike most shops, which may have a few chairs along a wall, La Casa del Habano offers the full cigar-smoking experience-in a way that most jurisdictions in the United States don’t allow. Pick up a few sticks and settle into a comfortable lounge with a Cohiba Siglo VI or a Vegas Robaino. Sip on a glass of port. Relax. In addition to the full bar, the shop’s walk-in humidor is managed carefully. Whichever cigar you choose, it will not crackle in your fingertips. The lounge is designed to be an oasis, with soft leather chairs and couches offering plenty of comfortable seating. Ventilation is sufficient to ensure that you’ll enjoy every draw, without having to suffer those expelled by the other guests.

I’ve found that in cigar shops across Quebec, selections tend to be limited. The old stand-by brands are all available-Monte Cristo, Cohiba and Punch-but there is little depth. Fortunately, this is not the case at La Casa del Habano, which carries an array of Cuban cigars that would rival non-Cuban selections at the top retailers in the United States in terms of variety and desirability.

Too often, we have to compromise. At La Casa del Habano, this will not be necessary.

During the summer, La Casa del Habano is a brisk walk from Old Montreal-or a short taxi ride. If you happen to be up north on business, you’ll probably be right around the corner. La Queu de Cheval, Montreal’s premier steakhouse, is only a few blocks away. Bring a cigar with you to enjoy after dinner-or take one from the restaurant’s humidor. Either way, light up, and enjoy the fact that you have options.