New Cuban Law Allows Free Travel Abroad

By Dialogo
January 16, 2013

On January 14, Cubans got their first taste of a reform letting them travel abroad without a reviled and costly exit visa.

As a vestige of the vanished Cold War era, Cubans gained a long-sought right for the first time in 50 years, with some calling it the most far-reaching of the changes President Raul Castro has undertaken since taking over for his ailing brother, Fidel, in July 2006.

Still, people there earn an average of $20 a month, while an airline ticket to Florida — a magnet for them — costs $500 or more, and Cubans still need visas to get into other countries, even if they no longer need one to get off their communist-ruled island or an invitation letter from the people they want to see, experts said.

In fact, on the first day the law came into effect, there was no stampede at passport offices or embassy consulates.

But there was an air of relief. Marta Piloto, a 50-year-old retiree, said she was delighted over the prospect of visiting her mother in North Carolina.

“This is the best thing Raul Castro has done. Now you can go wherever you want and come back whenever you want. Before, my relatives had to come here and see me,” Piloto said.

Skeptics remained wary of the government, however, and wondered if the new travel freedom is for real or will be enforced selectively.

Until now exit visas were granted haphazardly, with no explanation given when an application was turned down.

Even under the new reform, the fee for getting a passport was doubled to $100 — a small fortune for most Cubans.

Dissident award-winning blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has been repeatedly denied permission to leave Cuba, went to a passport office to apply for one on January 14, and was told it will be ready in two weeks.

“I asked them if I will be able to travel, and they said yes. But I will believe it when I get on the plane,” Sanchez told AFP.

The U.S. State Department said it welcomed any reform that allows Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely, “which is obviously a right that’s provided to everyone under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

But spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was too soon to tell if more people would now get the chance to travel abroad.

Many Cubans have long been separated from relatives living in exile. About one in six Cuban nationals lives abroad — around a million Cubans and Cuban-Americans live in Florida alone.

The reform eliminates messy red tape for those among the two million or so Cubans living abroad who want to visit the island, including athletes and others who defected while overseas.

Rights groups slammed the previous system for impeding Cubans’ basic freedom of movement, although Raul Castro’s government has ended several unpopular restrictions since 2006 as it tinkers with economic reforms.

The United States said it planned no change in its policy toward Cuban migrants.