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After 50 Years, Cubans Hope to Travel Freely PDF Print E-mail
Written by Paul Haven, Associated Press   
Thursday, 03 May 2012 02:02

HAVANA - After controlling the comings and goings of its people for five decades, communist Cuba appears on the verge of a momentous decision to lift many travel restrictions. One senior official says a "radical and profound" change is weeks away.

The comment by Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon has residents, exiles and policymakers abuzz with speculation that the much-hated exit visa could be a thing of the past, even if Raul Castro's government continues to limit the travel of doctors, scientists, military personnel and others in sensitive roles to prevent a brain drain.

Other top Cuban officials have cautioned against over-excitement, leaving islanders and Cuba experts to wonder how far Havana's leaders are willing to go.

In the past 18 months, Castro has removed prohibitions on some private enterprise, legalized real estate and car sales, and allowed compatriots to hire employees, ideas that were long anathema to the government's Marxist underpinnings.

Scrapping travel controls could be an even bigger step, at least symbolically, and carries enormous economic, social and political risk.

Even half measures — such as ending limits on how long Cubans can live abroad or cutting the staggeringly high fees for the exit visa that Cubans must obtain just to leave the country — would be significant.

"It would be a big step forward," said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute. "If Cuba ends the restrictions on its own citizens' travel, that means the only travel restrictions that would remain in place would be those the United States imposes on its citizens."

The move would open the door to increased emigration and make it easier for Cubans overseas to avoid forfeiting their residency rights, a fate that has befallen waves of exiles since the 1959 revolution.

It could also bolster the number of Cubans who travel abroad for work, increasing earnings sent home in the short term and, ultimately, investment by a new moneyed class.

Scrapping exit controls should win Cuba support in Europe, which improved ties after dozens of political prisoners were freed in 2010.

But Peters and several other analysts said they doubt the new rules would bring about any immediate shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, which includes a ban on American tourism. Those restrictions are entrenched and enjoy the backing of powerful Cuban American exiles.

"I don't think it would lead to a drastic change in U.S. policy, but an accumulation of human rights improvements could lead to an incremental change," Peters said.

Cuba-born Rep. Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, said any discussion about immigration reform on the island is a peripheral issue.

"The kind of changes I'm interested in are not about immigration," said Ros- Lehtinen, who heads the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. "I'm interested in changes that affect fundamental freedom, democracy and respect for human rights."

U.S. officials said they have been watching for an announcement for months, noting there has been such talk as far back as August. But nothing has happened, and they are skeptical that the Castro regime is truly committed to such reform.

Asked about possible reciprocal measures, one U.S. official said the Obama administration can't promise anything because it doesn't know what exactly Cuba plans to announce. The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly and demanded anonymity.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. "would certainly welcome greater freedom of movement for the Cuban public."

Rumors of the exit visa's imminent demise have circulated on and off for years. The whispers became open chatter last spring after the Communist Party endorsed migration reform at a crucial gathering. But Castro dashed those hopes in December, saying the timing wasn't right and the "fate of the revolution" was at stake.

Alarcon's comments, made in an interview published in April, revived hopes that a bold move is coming.

"One of the questions that we are currently discussing at the highest level of the government is the question of emigration," he told a French journalist. "We are working toward a radical and profound reform of emigration that in the months to come will eliminate this kind of restriction."

But on Saturday, Vice Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez told exiles not to set their hopes too high, vowing the government would maintain some travel controls as long as it faced a threat from enemies in Washington.

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