News and Facts about Cuba

Leaving Cuba: The difficult task of exiting the island

21 July 2012 Last updated at 08:34 GMT

Leaving Cuba: The difficult task of exiting the island

Sarah Rainsford By Sarah Rainsford BBC News, Havana

Cubans need permission to leave their island. And if they stay away too

long, they can't come back.

A year ago, pledged to "update" the country's

migration laws and allow . So far, the restrictions

remain in place.

But as parliament prepares for the first of two annual sessions on

Monday, Cubans are daring to hope that change might finally be imminent.

The official noticeboard in the grounds of the Vedado district office is

covered in yellow papers, detailing the many rules and regulations.

Would-be travellers need a letter of invitation from the person they

want to visit (fee: $200, £128) and permission to leave their place of

work. For graduate professionals, that means a letter signed by a

minister. They also need $150 for the exit permit, more than seven times

the average monthly salary.

Government critics can be refused permission to . Highly-valued

professionals, like doctors, face extra restrictions.

Reform hopes

"As far as I know, Cuba is the only country with these rules. They

shouldn't exist," argues Yenier Prado, who had to wait four months to

get his exit permit.

His family already live in the United States and he had an American visa

to join them. But first Cuba had to agree he could leave.

People queuing at an office in Havana In Havana, Cubans form

long queues outside the emigration offices every morning

"The procedure is too much, and it's very expensive," complains Adanay

Martin, who is hoping to travel for Mexico to study for a masters in

computer science.

"I don't agree with it, they have to get rid of it. But at least they're

talking about that now. It's a step forward," she says, after submitting

her own application for an exit permit.

At the Communist Party Congress last April, Cuba announced hundreds of

once unimaginable social and economic reforms intended to safeguard the

socialist system. Private business opportunities were expanded, people

were allowed to buy houses and cars, and free travel was established as

a principle.

In August, President Raul Castro confirmed that Cuba's migration policy

would be altered – recognition, he said, that some regulations once

justified in defence of the 1959 revolution had "persisted unnecessarily".

Cuba says it closed its borders soon after the revolution as a matter of

national security: the US, just 90 miles away, was the base for fierce

opposition to the Castro regime.

The government was also battling a brain-drain, accusing the US of

poaching its best-trained citizens to undermine the revolution.

Continue reading the main story

"There is still fear and prejudice about migration, still a way to go.

But I think the will for change is there"

Nadal Antelmo Cuban artists

Even today, any Cuban who reaches the US is entitled to residency after

one year.

"The rules were established to control who could come and go, but I

think circumstances are different and Cubans should be allowed to travel

with just a passport," argues Rafael Hernandez, editor of the social

science journal Tema.

The announcement of change was widely anticipated at the last session of

parliament in December. Instead, Raul Castro spoke of a "complex issue"

and said change would come "gradually".

So all eyes are now on the next National Assembly on Monday, where there

is a cautious hope that progress will be made.

"I think the consensus [for change] is pretty large. But there is some

resistance to changing a policy of almost 50 years," says Mr Hernandez.

"There are people in the leadership who think perhaps there will be a

brain drain. But I don't think it will be more than we have now," he

says. "If we make this change at last, those who leave will also be able

to return. They will not be lost to Cuba forever."

Breaking through

Currently, anyone who stays overseas for more than 11 months loses

residency rights. According to the National Statistics Office, 38,165

people were "lost" in that way in 2010 alone.

For many years, those who left the island were seen as traitors, enemies

of the revolution. The rhetoric has changed, with official recognition

that many Cubans leave for economic reasons.

It's now argued that easing the travel restrictions would allow those

who work abroad to maintain their ties with the island, and potentially

return with new expertise and – critically – funds.

The issue is now a matter of public discussion.

one house in a city side street was decked-out as an , at art

Biennial The exhibition explores changing attitudes to migration

At this summer's art Biennial there was a silhouette of a plane breaking

through fencing on the sea front and images of the Malecon sea wall,

made of barbed wire.

And one house in a city side street was decked-out as an airport, with

human-like figures poking through windows and hanging from ceilings.

"When we started this project some of my friends told me we'd be

, that we couldn't do it," remembers the artist Nadal Antelmo.

His exhibition explored the changing nature of emigration, and the use

of the word gusano or "worm" for those who left.

"I think it would have been hard to study this theme in the past, and to

put it in the street like this for people to interact with. So I think

there's a change," Nadal says, surrounded by his statues.

"There is still fear and prejudice about migration, still a way to go.

But I think the will for change is there."

But that will still hasn't been converted into concrete policy.

More than a year after Cubans were promised their country would open up,

and allow free travel, they're still waiting.

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