The White House also said Obama had asked officials to look at the possibility of direct flights between the US and Cuba, something also banned by previous US administrations.

In depth


Obama eases up on Cuba
In Video: US eases travel restrictions to Cuba

"The president has directed that a series of steps be taken to reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic human rights," Gibbs said.

"These are actions he has taken to open up the flow of information."

It also comes in advance of Obama's trip to Trinidad and Tobago for the summit of the Americas later this week, where the embargo is expected to be raised by some Latin American leaders.

Easing restrictions

The new rules also expand the type of family members that remittances can be sent to from the US to include second cousins.

A US delegation to Cuba last week urged
both nations to resume ties [EPA]
They also include expanding the type of items permitted in parcels being sent to Cuba by the approximate 1.5 million Americans who have relatives in Cuba, such as clothes, personal hygiene items, seeds, fishing equipment and other personal necessities.

The administration will also begin issuing licenses to allow US companies to provide mobile phones and television services to people on the island, and permit relatives to pay for family members there to get the services, the official said.

Raul Castro, the president of Cuba, eased restrictions in March last year on the ownership of phones, DVD players and cars and permitted Cubans to stay in foreign-owned hotels.

The move sparked hopes for further freedoms for Cubans under Raul, who took over the presidency after Fidel Castro, his brother, resigned in February 2008.

Embargo concerns

Several Latin American nations have been pressing for the US to lift its embargo, which has left Cuba isolated for decades.

A Democratic congressional delegation visited Cuba last week and issued a plea for both nations to normalise diplomatic relations and sort out their differences.

However, Obama said during his presidential campaign last year that he would keep the embargo in place, arguing that it provides political leverage to pressure the Cuban government over progress on human rights.

Conservative critics of Obama's new strategy on Cuba have said it could provide increased funds to prop up Cuba's one-party government.

Under rules enacted in 2004 by the administration of George Bush, Obama's predecessor, Cuban-Americans could travel to the island just once every three years and could send only $300 to their relatives.

The two nations have not had diplomatic ties since 1960, when the US severed them following the revolution under Fidel Castro.