Cuban government eases exit restrictions

After two years of hinting that change was imminent, the Cuban government announced Oct. 16 that citizens will be allowed to leave the country without having to ask for a permit.

This puts Cuba in tune with emigration procedures of most other countries.

Under much-hated previous regulations, Cuban citizens had to produce a letter of invitation and obtain an “exit permit” from the foreign ministry, at a cost of $150, allowing only for official travel and time-limited family visits abroad; Cubans would lose their residency rights after 11 months abroad.

As of Jan. 14, Cubans traveling abroad will only need a passport and obtain a visa of the host country. Cubans are now allowed to stay abroad for up to 24 months, allowing for — apparently indefinite — additional extensions granted by a Cuban consulate, without losing their citizen rights.

The eased restrictions are part of an “irreversible normalization process of the emigration with its fatherland,” according to an editorial in Communist Party daily Granma. An article in the same newspaper said that more measures easing conditions for the 1.5 million Cubans living abroad will follow.

The increased toleration of emigration, in turn, will likely increase demand for back-and-forth travel by Cubans, thus putting pressure on the U.S. government to do away with the special immigration privileges granted to Cuban citizens who set foot on U.S. soil.

“I don’t think it changes any U.S. laws on the books,” said Victoria Nuland, spokeswomen for the U.S. State Department. “The question becomes whether more Cubans desire to travel. We need to see how it affects the flow of travel.”

However, whether actual travel will increase depends on the U.S. government, experts say. Based on a U.S.-Cuba migration accord, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana is supposed to issue some 20,000 visitor visas per year; demand is much higher.

“It will be up to the U.S. government, and whether they will issue visas for all those who wish to visit here,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Miami-based Marazul Charters. Marazul is one of the largest Cuba charter companies in the United States.

Similarly, managers of European airlines contend that the biggest obstacle are now European immigration procedures for Cubans.

“The immigration regulations of destination countries in Europe continue to be the ultimate factor in the exit of Cubans,” said Carsten Sasse, an executive with Frankfurt-based Condor Flugdienst, asked whether he expects a spike in Cuban passengers. “That’s why we take a wait-and-see approach. In the meantime, we are glad about this step of the Cuban government.”

Even if Washington will keep direct travel by Cubans to the United States within the 20,000-a-year range, Cuban travel to Mexico and Canada will increase, some contend.

“The Cuban Adjustment Act and wet-foot-dry foot policy must be suspended and repealed,” New York-based pro-travel activist John McAuliff wrote in the Havana Note blog. “With Cubans free to travel to Mexico and Canada, ‘step across the border’ economic migration will become a bigger problem.”

To be sure, both Mexico and Canada have restrictive practices regarding private travel by Cubans as well. Also, according to some foreign observers, the Cuban government is raising fees for passports from $50 to $100.

Last but not least, in an effort to prevent brain drain, the Cuban government won’t grant passports to hundreds of thousands of professionals, such as doctors. According to the new regulations, published in the Gaceta Oficial Oct. 16, people “with obligations to the Cuban state or civic duties,” and people with expertise that fall under categories identified under regulations aimed at “preserving the skilled labor force” may not be granted a passport. Likewise, those involved in criminal proceedings, prisoners and soldiers won’t be eligible for a passport. The government will also deny a passport “when reasons of defense and national security recommend so.”

The U.S. government has an ongoing program that helps Cuban doctors defect to the United States.

The passport restrictions, the article in Granma said, fall within “the right of the revolutionary state to defend itself against the meddling and subversive plans of the U.S. government and its allies.” They are aiming at “preserving the human capital created by the Revolution, against the talent theft the powerful are practicing.”

A week earlier, the Cuban national soccer team lost three members when they defected during a World Cup qualifying game in Canada.

Economists caution that the non-convertibility of the Cuban peso is a major impediment to back-and-forth travel by Cubans. Even so, the Cuban economy will likely benefit.

“The economic implications of the relaxation of the travel restrictions are ambiguous and not yet clear — as is the detail of the legislation itself at this time,” said Arch Ritter, a Canadian economist and Cuba watcher. “However, the government perhaps is to be congratulated for renouncing some easy forms of hard currency income from the elimination of the exit permit fee and facing the risk of increased emigration. Over time, the crass monetary aspects of the improvement in peoples’ freedom of movement should be more positive in terms of government revenues and National economic gains.”

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