WASHINGTON, Sept. 18, 2015 - American agricultural exporters can start opening offices and storage facilities in Cuba, under a series of steps finalized by the Obama administration to ease restrictions on business and travel. 

The businesses also will be authorized to hire Cuban nationals and maintain bank accounts in the country, under regulations released by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The regulations allow companies handling agricultural commodities and other authorized exports to have offices, retail outlets and warehouses in Cuba.

“It seems like it should be positive,” said Dave Salmonsen, a trade policy specialist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. But Cuba’s actual demand for U.S. food will depend on what the Cuban government ultimately allows, he said. 

In July, U.S. food exports to Cuba were down by more than 8 percent from the year before, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Cuba imported $3.3 million in food and agriculture products this July, compared to $17 million in 2014. 

The release of the regulations came just before Pope Francis’ arrival in Cuba ahead of his U.S. visit next week. 

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said that easing U.S. sanctions on Cuba shows that the administration is committed to promoting “constructive change for the Cuban people.”

“A stronger, more open U.S.-Cuba relationship has the potential to create economic opportunities for both Americans and Cubans alike. By further easing these sanctions, the United States is helping to support the Cuban people in their effort to achieve the political and economic freedom necessary to build a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.”

The new regulations also will relax restrictions on passenger and cargo vessels and allow Americans to provide some telecommunications and Internet services in Cuba.