News and Facts about Cuba

Travel may free up for Cubans

may free up for Cubans

Change only weeks away, official insists

By Paul Haven

Associated Press

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

travel restrictions.

One senior official says a "radical and profound" change is only 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 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 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 . 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 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 , 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 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

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."

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

Soviet Union.

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.

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

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."

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.

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.

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