A man fills out forms at a regional office of the Direction of Immigration… (ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/EPA )
MEXICO CITY — The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it will ease its highly restrictive travel laws in January, allowing many Cubans to go abroad without obtaining a hard-to-get exit visa.
The announcement in the Communist Party newspaper Granma marks a major shift in migration policy for the Havana government, which for more than 50 years has imposed tight controls on who leaves the island and how long Cubans may remain abroad without losing their citizenship benefits.
The Obama administration offered cautious support for the change, which the U.S. government has called for since the Kennedy administration.
“We obviously welcome any reforms that will allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely,” said Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department.
“This is certainly a step, but I would advise that even with regard to this step, we await further information,” she said. “We need to see how it is implemented.”
The new policy follows other recent reforms by President Raul Castro, who has lifted Cold War-era, Soviet-style prohibitions against computer ownership, Internet use, hotel stays, cellphones, private cars and real estate sales.
“It is a clear improvement in Cuba’s human rights practices,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute who frequently travels to the island to monitor change. “This is not like lifting a speed limit; it changes a set of policies that block millions from seeing their families when they wish.”
The new rules will not affect Americans’ travel to the island, which, because of the 50-year-old U.S. embargo, is limited to Cuban Americans returning for family visits and other U.S. citizens — such as journalists, academics, missionaries, students — who can go on educational or cultural exchanges.
Even with a change in the exit-
visa requirement, Cubans who want to travel abroad still have to obtain a visa from the country they wish to visit. The U.S. government may be hard-pressed to meet the demand of tens of thousands of Cubans who want to leave the island.
“Let’s be honest. Many Cubans who get a visa to the United States will not go back to Cuba,” said Jaime Suchliki, director of the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami. “This is Raul Castro’s way of saying, ‘Look, this isn’t my problem anymore, it’s your problem.’ ”
In Cuba, the strict laws requiring exit visas have led many to risk leaving the island on fragile boats, rafts or inner tubes or to defect while abroad.
Obtaining an exit visa has generally required a marathon trip through the state bureaucracy and payment of hundreds of dollars in fees in a country where an engineer or a doctor makes $30 a month. And at the end of the process, many Cubans are simply denied the visa. Dissidents and other critics of the Cuban government and the Castro leadership are denied permission to travel overseas.
The exit-visa requirement is one of the most widely loathed policies in Cuba, among the elites and ordinary people alike. Few countries require exit visas, and their use is considered a human rights violation.
According to the notice published Tuesday, Cubans will no longer have to present a letter of invitation to travel abroad, and when they leave, they will have to show only their passport and a visa from the country they are traveling to. The rules will take effect Jan. 13.
The government also said that it would allow Cubans to remain outside the country for 24 months before they risk losing their residency and their rights to state-provided housing, health care and schooling. Currently, they must return home within 11 months.
There is, however, a catch.
“The update to the migratory policy takes into account the right of the revolutionary State to defend itself from the interventionist and subversive plans of the U.S. government and its allies,” the government said. “Therefore, measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful.”
What this means: Engineers, scientists, doctors, athletes, performers, pilots, military officers and others who have been educated by the revolution and are considered too valuable to lose will probably still be required to get exit visas.
Emigration and brain drain
The Cuban government has long complained about U.S. immigration policies that encourage a brain drain from Cuba — granting immediate residency, work permits and a quick path to U.S. citizenship to any Cuban who makes it to the shores of the United States, under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. (Cubans intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba, but those who make it to land are granted asylum.)
U.S. policy makes emigration especially enticing for Cuban doctors. The Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program allows Cuban doctors and other health workers who are overseas to enter the United States immediately as refugees.