After 50 years, Cubans hope to travel freely
Posted on Tuesday, 05.01.12
After 50 years, Cubans hope to travel freely
By PAUL HAVEN
HAVANA — After controlling the comings and goings of its people for
five decades, communist Cuba appears on the verge of a momentous
decision to lift many travel restrictions. One senior official says a
"radical and profound" change is weeks away.
The comment by Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon has residents, exiles
and policymakers abuzz with speculation that the much-hated exit visa
could be a thing of the past, even if Raul Castro's government continues
to limit the travel of doctors, scientists, military personnel and
others in sensitive roles to prevent a brain drain.
Other top Cuban officials have cautioned against over-excitement,
leaving islanders and Cuba experts to wonder how far Havana's leaders
are willing to go.
In the past 18 months, Castro has removed prohibitions on some private
enterprise, legalized real estate and car sales, and allowed compatriots
to hire employees, ideas that were long anathema to the government's
Scrapping travel controls could be an even bigger step, at least
symbolically, and carries enormous economic, social and political risk.
Even half measures – such as ending limits on how long Cubans can live
abroad or cutting the staggeringly high fees for the exit visa that
Cubans must obtain just to leave the country – would be significant.
"It would be a big step forward," said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at
the Virginia-based Lexington Institute. "If Cuba ends the restrictions
on its own citizens' travel, that means the only travel restrictions
that would remain in place would be those the United States imposes on
The move would open the door to increased emigration and make it easier
for Cubans overseas to avoid forfeiting their residency rights, a fate
that has befallen waves of exiles since the 1959 revolution.
It could also bolster the number of Cubans who travel abroad for work,
increasing earnings sent home in the short term and, ultimately,
investment by a new moneyed class.
Scrapping exit controls should win Cuba support in Europe, which
improved ties after dozens of political prisoners were freed in 2010.
But Peters and several other analysts said they doubt the new rules
would bring about any immediate shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, which
includes a ban on American tourism. Those restrictions are entrenched
and enjoy the backing of powerful Cuban American exiles.
"I don't think it would lead to a drastic change in U.S. policy, but an
accumulation of human rights improvements could lead to an incremental
change," Peters said.
Cuba-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, said any
discussion about immigration reform on the island is a peripheral issue.
"The kind of changes I'm interested in are not about immigration," said
Ros-Lehtinen, who heads the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. "I'm
interested in changes that affect fundamental freedom, democracy and
respect for human rights."
U.S. officials said they have been watching for an announcement for
months, noting there has been such talk as far back as August. But
nothing has happened, and they are skeptical that the Castro regime is
truly committed to such reform.
Asked about possible reciprocal measures, one U.S. official said the
Obama administration can't promise anything because it doesn't know what
exactly Cuba plans to announce. The official wasn't authorized to speak
publicly and demanded anonymity.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. "would certainly
welcome greater freedom of movement for the Cuban public."
Rumors of the exit visa's imminent demise have circulated on and off for
years. The whispers became open chatter last spring after the Communist
Party endorsed migration reform at a crucial gathering. But Castro
dashed those hopes in December, saying the timing wasn't right and the
"fate of the revolution" was at stake.
Alarcon's comments, made in an interview published in April, revived
hopes that a bold move is coming.
"One of the questions that we are currently discussing at the highest
level of the government is the question of emigration," he told a French
journalist. "We are working toward a radical and profound reform of
emigration that in the months to come will eliminate this kind of
But on Saturday, Vice Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez told exiles
not to set their hopes too high, vowing the government would maintain
some travel controls as long as it faced a threat from enemies in
Havana residents say they are anxiously waiting to see what the
"The time has come to get rid of the exit visa," said Vivian Delgado, a
shop worker. "It's absurd that as a Cuban I must get permission to leave
my country, and even worse that I need permission to come back."
Added Domingo Blanco, a 24-year-old state office worker: "It's as if one
needed to ask to leave one's own house."
Many Cubans are reluctant to talk about their own experience with the
exit visa. One woman named Miru, who has been trying to leave Cuba since
2006, shared her story on the condition her full name not be used for
fear that speaking with a foreign journalist could land her in trouble.
"This has been a very long process," she said of her odyssey, which
began when her husband defected from a medical mission in Africa and
sought asylum in the U.S.
First, she had to get a letter releasing her from her job at a
government ministry – a process that took five years. Only then could
she apply for the exit visa. That was three months ago, and Miru still
hasn't received an answer. Officials say her case is complicated but
won't give a specific reason for the delay.
"I am very anxious to see my husband again," she said.
The exit controls are a Cold War legacy of Cuba's alliance with the
Soviet Union. They were instituted in December 1961 to fight brain drain
as hundreds of thousands of doctors and other professionals fled, many
for new lives in Florida. That was three months before the U.S. embargo
barring most trade with the island went into full effect.
Over the years, it has become much easier for Cubans to obtain
permission to travel, though many are still denied, and it is
particularly hard to take children out of the country.
Also, the exit visa's $150 price tag is a small fortune in a country
where salaries average about $20 a month. In addition, the person the
traveler wishes to visit must pay $200 at a Cuban consulate.
Those who leave get only a 30-day pass, and the cost of an extension
varies by country. In the U.S., the fee is $130 a month. Those who stay
abroad more than 11 months lose the right to reside in Cuba. Before
2011, any property would automatically go to the state.
"The Cuban government has monetized every part of the humiliating
process of coming and going," said Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba
expert and author of "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana
and Washington." "Getting out means running a gantlet, and it is all
based on how much humiliation you can endure, and by the time they end
up in Miami, people are filled with hate and dreams of revenge."
Cuban officials have long portrayed the measures as necessary to counter
Washington's meddling. They accuse the U.S. of trying to lure away
doctors by letting them walk into any American consulate and request asylum.
Cuban officials say even ordinary islanders are encouraged to leave by
U.S. regulations that automatically grant asylum to any who reach
American shores, a policy Cuba says has encouraged thousands to attempt
the dangerous trip on leaky boats and makeshift rafts across the Florida
It's not clear how emigration reform will affect dissidents, who are
routinely denied permission to leave and could still find themselves on
some form of no-exit list.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, dissident blogger Yoani
Sanchez called the exit controls "our own Berlin Wall without the
concrete … a wall made of paperwork and stamps, overseen by the grim
stares of soldiers." She has been denied travel papers at least 19 times
by her own count.
Some hardliners in Florida predict any change will be merely a sleight
of hand designed to export malcontents, ease a severe housing shortage
and fob off legions of superfluous state workers.
But for hundreds of thousands of Cubans like Miru, the exit visa is a
personal matter, not political. After six years separated from her
husband, she clings to hope that she will finally obtain permission or
benefit from a change in the law.
"I have followed all the rules of my country," she said. "I'll be so
happy to leave."
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana,
Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami, and Bradley Klapper in Washington
contributed to this report.
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