News and Facts about Cuba

After 50 years, Cubans hope to travel freely

Posted on Tuesday, 05.01.12

After 50 years, Cubans hope to freely


Associated Press

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 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

Marxist underpinnings.

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

its citizens."

The move would open the door to increased 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,

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 . 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 , 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 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

. "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

government does.

"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.

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 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 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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