Girish Gupta

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Cubans can leave, but to where and with what?
Nov. 11, 2012 — Havana, Cuba

Text published by USA Today
Audio featured on RTÉ World Report



Vladimir Maiquil, 50, casts his fishing line off Havana's seafront boulevard, the Malecón, into the waters of the Florida Straits, 90 miles from America.

"I'd love to travel and have the opportunity to see the world," Maiquil says, "but how can I afford the flight? I've got no chance. It's almost impossible."

For decades, Cuba has been a country whose government would not let its people leave. But in October, it announced a lifting of the despised travel ban to begin in January.

The announcement cheered Cubans as well as millions of Cuban Americans whose families have escaped the island since its takeover by communists. But it is unlikely the change will result in a tidal wave of Cuban travelers.

The new law means that beginning Jan. 14, Cubans will no longer have to apply for a costly exception to the travel ban, known as an exit visa, or show a letter of invitation from a person in the intended destination.

But the expense of a visa from the destination country, the cost to travel and the fine print in the government announcement will probably keep most Cubans home.

Cubans make an average of $18 a month, and a passport will cost the average Cuban five months' salary, says Ray Walser, a senior policy analyst specializing in Latin America at the Heritage Foundation.

Only those Cubans who receive cash remittances from friends and family abroad will be able to afford it. Then there are the exceptions to the rule.

The announcement made Oct. 16 in a government newspaper stated that Cubans need only have a renewed passport and a visa from the country of destination to travel. President Raul Castro said the regime will still decide who can renew or obtain passports. The government will protect "human capital" in its decision-making, and travel can be denied for "national security reasons."

Those deemed necessary to the Cuba socialist revolution — professionals such as doctors, scientists and engineers — can be prevented from departing. The "national security" clause worries some opposition figures.

Yoani Sanchez is a prominent Cuban blogger who has been denied an exit visa 19 times.

"We've been waiting for this reform for years," Sanchez said. "There's 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."

For years, Sanchez's blog has documented to the outside world the oppression, poverty and corruption the Cuban people suffer daily. She has received numerous journalism awards and been named to Time's 100 Most Influential list. Sanchez says she will line up to collect her new passport, but she is not hopeful.

This year, the Brazilian government offered her a visa to go to Brazil to view a new documentary on the treatment of critics in Cuba, which relies on a large number of paid informants and state security to squelch criticism and imprison dissenters. Her request for an exit visa though was denied.

"I don't want to feel defeated," she said. "I'll go to the office and try to get a passport. In the meantime, I'll enjoy the illusion that I can leave."

The new law is part of wider changes made by Castro, 81, who took over the island in 2008 from his elder brother, Fidel. He has slowly opened up Cuba's private industries, allowing small businesses such as guesthouses and restaurants to grow.

One implication of the increased time period that Cubans will be allowed to leave the island — to be set at two years — is that they will be able to obtain U.S. citizenship without losing their rights back in Cuba. This process normally takes around a year.

This could lead to an influx of immigrants from Cuba to the USA, which maintains its policy that any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil is eligible for legal immigrant status.

The hope for Havana authorities is that Cubans move back and forth and bring in vital foreign currency, some say.

"We'll see what happens in January," said economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, echoing the view of many in Cuba.

Filed from
Havana, Cuba






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© Girish Gupta