In a remarkable sign of change in Cuba, the Cuban government announced yesterday that for the first time in a half-century Cubans will be able to travel abroad freely without first needing permission from the government.
The exit visas required for foreign travel, which the government instituted two years after the revolution in a sign of its long-lasting paranoia about Cubans leaving, were despised by the citizenry, making many feel trapped in Cuba forever. This new approach, which was announced in the Communist party newspaper, Granma, will go into effect on Jan. 14.
“These measures are truly substantial and profound,” said Col. Lamberto Fraga, Cuba’s deputy chief of immigration. “What we are doing is not just cosmetic.”
The new measure will require Cubans only to show their passport and a visa from the country they are visiting. In addition to the exit visas, previously Cubans also needed a letter of invitation from the country they were visiting. It is the latest change to come from President Raul Castro’s five-year plan of reforms. Already he has legalized car and home sales and made it easier for Cubans to own private businesses.
There was almost disbelief on the streets of Havana, where most residents have lived with the travel restrictions for their entire lives.
“No! Wow, how great!” Mercedes Delgado, 73, told the Associated Press. “Citizens’ rights are being restored.”
According to experts, the difficulty for Cuban citizens now will be obtaining travel visas from the country they are seeking to visit, which might be wary of accepting Cubans for fear that they won’t want to go back to Cuba.
“For most, the key bottleneck will now be getting an entry visa from the target country,” Bert Hoffmann, a Cuba expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, told Reuters.
The changes by the government also extends the time limit of visas for foreigners wishing to live in Cuba.
“They want people to come and live in Cuba, and invest in the country,” Antonio Zamora, a Cuban-American lawyer in Miami who travels frequently to the island to study Cuba’s legal system.
The image of Cubans trying to use homemade boats and rafts to float to the shores of Florida, just 90 miles away from the island, has become a cliche in America, even prompting a derogatory name to describe them— “wet backs.” An estimated hundreds of thousands have successfully made the journey over the past 50 years, most notably in mass migrations in 1965, 1980 and 1994. They are rewarded for their efforts by the U.S. government, which allows Cubans to stay here if they make it to American shores but sends them back if they are intercepted in the water, in a policy known as “wet foot, dry foot.” In the past year, nearly 1,300 Cubans were sent back after failing to reach the shores.
The U.S. now accepts about 20,000 Cubans annually via legal immigration, as well as family members seeking reunification.
“We obviously welcome any reforms that will allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “We are analyzing, obviously, all of the details and any implications it may have for our processing” of Cubans seeking to travel to the United States.
The new travel measures, set to take effect on Jan. 14, extend to 24 months, from the current 11, the amount of time Cubans can be out of the country without losing rights and property, and they can seek an extension of up to 24 months more, the government said.
“At last, our government is not going to treat us like children,” said Israel Gutierrez, a college student, while waiting to board a bus.
One woman told Reuters she hoped finally to take her daughter to Disney World in Florida.