‘Euphoria’ in Cuba as Raúl Castro loosens travel policy
Posted on Tuesday, 10.16.12
'Euphoria' in Cuba as Raúl Castro loosens travel policy
Although the decree granted more freedom to Cubans to travel abroad, it
made it clear Cuba will maintain strict controls on citizens traveling
abroad and exiles returning to the island.
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
The Cuban government's bombshell decision to drop the widely hated exit
permits required for citizens travelling abroad has unleashed "euphoria"
on the island as well as concerns abroad over a possible mass exodus.
A decree published Tuesday made it clear the communist government will
continue to decide who can leave the island, as it has since Jan. 9,
1959. It repeatedly noted that any Cuban could be kept from travelling
"when the proper authorities so decide."
"But there is an incredible euphoria here because what 1 million or more
people here really want is to leave" for good or just to visit relatives
or friends abroad, dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said from
University of Miami professor Jaime Suchlicki warned of a "legal
Mariel." And a pro-Cuba activist urged Washington to avert a possibly
massive increase in the number of Cubans arriving by ending its
wet-foot, dry-foot policies and the Cuban Adjustment Act.
State Department spokesman William Ostick said Washington welcomed the
changes because they favor human rights, but warned Cubans not to "risk
their lives" crossing the Straits of Florida and noted that they still
need visas to enter most nations.
"Now the question is where, where can we go to," said Katarina Ponce, a
recently laid off government secretary, trying to figure out if any
countries do not require Cubans to obtain visas in advance of their
arrival. "Russia? Cambodia? Any place."
Havana blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has been denied exit permits more than
20 times, wrote on Tweeter that "The devil is in the details of the new
migration law" and called the decree "gatopardista" — a situation where
change is more apparent than real.
The new rules appear likely to allow more average Cubans — those without
political or other issues pending with the government — to travel abroad
more easily, stay out longer and return with fewer complications, costs
They also may help ease some of the social and financial pressures
ballooning inside Cuba under Raúl Castro's decisions to reform the
economy by laying off nearly 1 million state employees and cutting
subsidies to the food, health and education sectors.
More than 1 million Cubans now live abroad, mostly in the United States,
and about 7,400 islanders without visas arrived in the United States in
the one-year period that ended Sept. 30. All Cubans who step on U.S.
soil can stay permanently.
The decree noted that as of Jan. 14, Cubans will no longer need the exit
permits, which cost $150 in a country where the average monthly wage
stands at $20. They also will not need letters of invitation from their
foreign hosts, which cost $200 to process.
The changes also extend from 11 to 24 months the amount of time that
Cubans can spend abroad before they are ruled to have officially
migrated and lose benefits such as health care. Further extensions are
But the government retains final say on who gets passports because U.S.
migration policies that favor Cuban migrants "take away from us the
human resources that are indispensable to the economic, social and
scientific development of the country," according to a report Tuesday in
the Granma newspaper announcing the changes.
Supervisors must approve the issuance of passports to government and
military officials, professionals, physicians and other medical
personnel, top sports figures and others whose work is deemed "vital" to
the state, according to the decree.
Passports also can be denied to any Cuban "when it is so determined by
the appropriate authorities for other reasons of public interest," the
decree added, or when "reasons of defense and national security suggest it."
"If that's the way it is, then I have to believe that the government
will be as arbitrary as always," said Wilfredo Vallín, a Havana lawyer
who heads the non-government Cuban Judicial Association.
Also barred from obtaining passports — whose price rose from about $60
to about $110 — are those who are subject to the military draft or have
other unspecified "obligations" to the government.
"The government continues to regard migration not as a right of all
Cubans but as a gift that it gives to people according to its own
interests," said Juan Antonio Blanco, a Florida International University
professor who has studied Cuba's migration regulations.
The decree also abolishes the reentry permit required for Cubans who
live abroad and wish to visit the island, and extends the time they can
visit from one month to at least three months per visit.
Not all will be welcomed back, however. Blocked are those who "organize,
encourage or participate in hostile actions against the political,
economic and social basis of the state," and any others "when reasons of
defense and national security call for it."
Also on the don't-come list, according to the decree, are those with
criminal records for terrorism, money laundering or weapons smuggling,
and those "linked to acts against humanity, human dignity (or) the
"This continues the government effort to control the conduct of citizens
inside and outside the island, through an opaque system that rewards and
punishes at its own discretion," said Blanco, a former analyst for the
Communist Party's Central Committee.
The migration reforms were the most anticipated of all the changes that
Raúl Castro has been talking about and putting in place since he took
over from older brother Fidel Castro, temporarily in 2006 and officially
The exit permit was required in 1959 initially to block the escape of
officials and supporters of the Batista government toppled by the Castro
revolution just nine days before. The re-entry permit was required
beginning in 1961, to try to control the return of radical Castro opponents.
But Raúl Castro told the nation's legislature last year that Cuban
migration policies needed an update because those leaving the country
nowadays are "émigrés for economic reasons" rather than hostile exiles.
Suchlicki, head of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at
UM, on Tuesday reissued a column he wrote on May 3 warning that Castro
was planning a mass exodus to relieve pressures inside Cuba. The column
was titled, "Is Cuba planning a legal Mariel?"
John McAuliff, a New York activist who has long opposed the U.S. embargo
on the island, also predicted that with more Cubans free to travel
abroad, more will wind up in Mexico and Canada and will step across the
The Obama administration should therefore immediately end the wet-foot,
dry-foot policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows any Cuban who
sets foot on U.S. territory to stay permanently, and to remain, McAuliff
wrote in an email.
Mauricio Claver Carone, executive director of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba
Democracy Political Action Committee in Washington, remained skeptical.
When Cubans start jamming foreign diplomatic missions in Havana in
search of visas and come up empty handed, he said, the Castro government
will tell them, "Well as you can see, other countries also don't want
you to travel."
Even more skeptical was Blanco. "When all this blows over, the Cubans
and the media will realize that not much has changed in the tight
control system," he said. "Stalin can continue to sleep in peace."