Travel may free up for Cubans
Travel may free up for Cubans
Change only weeks away, official insists
By Paul Haven
Monday, May 7, 2012
HAVANA — After controlling the comings and goings of its people for five
decades, communist Cuba appears on the verge of a decision to lift many
One senior official says a "radical and profound" change is only 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 too much excitement,
leaving islanders and Cuba experts to wonder how far Havana's leaders
are willing to go.
In the past 18 months, Mr. Castro has removed prohibitions on some
private enterprise, legalized real estate and car sales, and allowed
compatriots to hire employees. Those ideas were long anathema to the
government's Marxist underpinnings.
Scrapping travel controls could be an even bigger step, at least
symbolically. It also 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 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,
thus 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.
Mr. 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 have 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," Mr. Peters said.
Cuba-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, 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
Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"I'm interested in changes that affect fundamental freedom, democracy
and respect for human rights."
U.S. officials skeptical
U.S. officials said they have been anticipating an announcement for
months, noting there has been such talk as far back as August.
They remain skeptical that the Castro regime is truly committed to such
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States "would
certainly welcome greater freedom of movement for the Cuban public."
Rumors of the exit visa's imminent demise have circulated for years.
The whispers became open chatter last year after the Communist Party
endorsed migration reform at a crucial gathering. Mr. Castro dashed
those hopes in December, saying the timing wasn't right and the "fate of
the revolution" was at stake.
Mr. Alarcon's comments, made in an interview published in April, revived
hope 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 restriction."
However, Vice Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez last week 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 opponents 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
"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."
Domingo Blanco, a 24-year-old state office worker added, "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 get 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 United States.
First, she had to get a letter releasing her from her job at a
government ministry. That process took five years.
Three months ago, she applied for an exist visa but has yet to receive
an answer. Officials say her case is complicated but will not give a
specific reason for the delay.
"I am very anxious to see my husband again," she said.
Cuba's Berlin Wall
The exit controls are a Cold War legacy of Cuba's alliance with the
They were instituted in December 1961 to counteract a 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. It is particularly
hard to take children out of the country.
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 United States, 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
"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."
It is unclear 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.
Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, writing in the New York Times, 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.