Cuban architect Felix Borges, who last left the Caribbean island in 1989 to visit Angola, is among a wave of prospective tourists seeking to go abroad as President Raul Castro begins easing travel rules on the communist island.
Starting today, Borges and other Cuban citizens will no longer need exit visas or invitations from a resident of a foreign country in order to travel, a rule that kept many from leaving the island for decades. The policy shift comes as Castro takes more steps to open up the economy as part of the biggest overhaul since the 1959 revolution led by his brother Fidel.
“They’ll have normal rules where people can leave and come back,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. “People can go abroad to get a degree and come back, or work and send money back. It’s going to have an economic benefit because it will connect people to the outside world.”
While lifting travel restrictions may cause more Cubans to flee the island for good, Castro is betting that most will return and help rebuild the nation’s economy, Peters said. Yet in a country where the average monthly salary is $19, according to Cuba’s statistics agency, even buying an airplane ticket will be beyond the reach of most of the island’s 11 million residents.
“Tickets are too expensive even for professionals who just scrape by day to day on their salaries,” Borges, 55, said in e- mailed comments from Havana.
In addition, not everyone will be allowed to take advantage of the new rules, which also enable Cubans to stay abroad for two years, up from 11 months previously. The Castro government, in announcing the changes last October, said that it can prevent Cubans from leaving the island for national security reasons and “to preserve the human capital created by the revolution.”
Yoani Sanchez, a dissident who frequently writes about her failed efforts to leave Cuba, said migration authorities told her today that she would be free to travel once a passport is ready next month.
“Fingers crossed,” she wrote on her Twitter account. “I’ll believe it when I’m on the plane.”
Most countries, including the U.S., also require Cubans to apply for travel visas. Ecuador is the only Latin American nation that doesn’t, provoking concern that some Cubans will first travel there and attempt to migrate to the U.S., Peters said.
Those who flee the island are allowed to stay in the U.S. through the so-called wet foot, dry foot policy, which has given refuge to Cubans who manage to cross the Florida Straits and step foot on U.S. soil. Cubans intercepted at sea by U.S. officials are returned to the island.
While Castro officials have denounced the U.S. policy for encouraging illegal immigration, the rule changes will allow Cubans living in places like Miami to return. Among those permitted to come back are doctors and sports stars who left the island after 1990, according to a statement today on the government-run website Cubadebate.
Cubans are most likely to visit places where they have family, namely in the U.S. and Spain, said Tomas Bilbao, who heads the Cuba Study Group, a Washington-based organization that seeks to change U.S. policy toward Cuba and encourage a market- based economy on the island.
“Mexico may be a destination as it’s close and flights are less expensive,” though it’s doubtful the government will allow enough visas to meet demand in an effort to stem illegal immigration, Bilbao said.
The U.S. is also preparing for a surge in visa requests.
“The United States is working to ensure that mechanisms are in place to address any increase in visa applications or undocumented migration, and urges Cuban families to use legal family reunification and other immigration mechanisms already in place,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in an e-mailed statement on Jan. 11.
Miriam Leiva, a founder of the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White, said Castro’s government is opening up additional offices to handle extra travel requests, which will include opposition leaders wishing to test their luck.
“The main ambition for many, many Cubans is to leave the country,” Leiva said in a phone interview from Havana. “This is a way for the government to tell all Cubans abroad that, listen, you don’t have to defect, you can stay there, you can work and then come back or go elsewhere.”
With assistance from Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington. Editors: Philip Sanders and Harry Maurer.
To contact the reporters on this story: Eric Sabo in Panama City at [email protected]; Anatoly Kurmanaev in Bogota at [email protected] To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andre Soliani at [email protected]