HAVANA, Cuba, Friday May 11, 2012 – After fifty years of rigid control, communist Cuba appears on the verge of lifting many overseas travel restrictions. One senior official says a “radical and profound” change is weeks away.
Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon’s comment has residents, exiles and policymakers speculating that the much-hated exit visa could soon be a thing of the past, even if Raul Castro’s government continues to limit the travel of doctors, scientists and others in sensitive positions to prevent a brain drain.
Other top officials have warned against over-optimism, leaving Cubans wondering how far the administration is willing to go.
In the past 18 months, President 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.
Dispensing with travel controls could be an even bigger step and carries enormous economic, social and political risk.
Even partial measures, such as ending limits on how long Cubans can live abroad or cutting the high fees for the exit visa that Cubans must obtain 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 many 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, 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.
But Peters and several other analysts said they doubt the new rules would bring about any immediate shift in United States policy toward Cuba, which includes a ban on American tourism. Those restrictions are entrenched and enjoy the backing of powerful Cuban American exiles.
Rumours of the exit visa’s demise have circulated on and off for years. The whispers became more vocal 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 journalist. “We are working toward a radical and profound reform of emigration that in the months to come will eliminate this kind of restriction.”
But Vice Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez subsequently 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 Washington.
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 US embargo barring most trade with the island went into full effect.
Over the years, it has become 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.
Additionally, the exit visa’s $150 price tag is a small fortune in a country where salaries average about $20 a month. The person the traveller wishes to visit must also 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 US, 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.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, dissident blogger 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 housing shortage and fob off legions of superfluous state workers.
But for hundreds of thousands of Cubans, the exit visa is a personal matter, not political.