Today is the start of a dramatically new day for Cubans on the island and those living abroad.
Cuba has significantly loosened its long-despised travel restrictions, making it much easier for Cubans to leave the island to travel abroad.
In essence, starting today, Cuba will be much more like a “normal” country, where people can come and go as they wish — as long as they have the money to pay for the travel. For the first time in a half-century, the 11 million residents of this Caribbean island 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 first announced in the Communist party newspaper, Granma, back in October, went into effect today.
“These measures are truly substantial and profound,” Lamberto Fraga, Cuba’s deputy chief of immigration, explained when the change was announced. “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. He has legalized car and home sales and made it easier for Cubans to own private businesses.
When it was first announced, there was almost disbelief on the streets of Havana. Most residents have lived with the travel restrictions for their entire lives.
Many Cubans on the island say very few people have enough money to afford a plane ticket — the average Cuban salary is $18 a month — and so the change will have little impact on their day-to-day lives. But the psychological transformation that others point to is the significant change.
“Overall, this speaks to a desire to move toward a more normal immigration policy and a more normal country where people go back and forth, work, send money,” Philip Peters, vice president of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, told The New York Times. The institute follows the United States’ relationship with Cuba.
The new rules also will allow islanders to spend more time overseas before they forfeit their Cuban residency — likely a reflection of leader Raul Castro’s desire for closer ties with millions of Cubans who live abroad.
Since the 1960s, most Cubans who moved overseas without special permission lost their rights and property. Those who do return for visits — 400,000 traveled from the United States last year alone — may stay on the island for three months, under the new regulations. They are not allowed to buy property or invest in private businesses — though many do under the table.
Cubans who leave will no longer automatically lose their property, under the new rules, and those who wish to return for good can reapply for residency. In addition, the government has extended the period Cubans may spend overseas without losing their right to return from 11 months to two years — giving them more time to find jobs overseas and creating a window for those in the United States to apply for residency there.
Blogger and activist Yoani Sanchez, who has been unable to travel outside Cuba, told the Christian Science Monitor that she would be in line at one of the 195 passport offices today to test the new rules.
“There will be more flexibility and a reduction in the bureaucracy and in cost, but it doesn’t give people directly the right to enter and exit this country,” Sanchez says. “I’ll enjoy the illusion that I can leave.”