The present exit-visa requirement for Cubans travelling abroad will be ended by Jan. 14, 2013. This will allow more Cubans to go on vacation or even leave permanently with just a passport and a visa from the destination country.
The more relaxed policy was promised by President Raul Castro a year ago. The change was announced in the Communist Party newspaper. The move is the latest attempt by the Cuban government to allow for change in Cuba without the party losing control.
The government will still be able to prevent some people from leaving. For example, there may be restrictions on technical and medical personnel to avoid a brain drain out of the country. The new regulations include a provision that the government may limit departures to “preserve the human capital created by the Revolution.” People could be restricted from travel for security reasons as well. Dissidents might be restricted on those grounds. However, the degree to which restrictions will still occur can only be gauged once the new policy is in effect.
The new laws also allow Cubans to stay abroad for long periods of time. They can remain outside the country for two years, and perhaps extend this, and still retain property rights and rights to benefits such as health care. At present, the maximum stay abroad is just 11 months.
The government hopes that Cubans will travel elsewhere to earn money, which will then be sent to families in Cuba. Already the easing of restrictions has resulted in remittances to Cuba growing to an estimated $2.3 billion a year now, from just $1 billion in 2004.
Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at , said: “The decision to lift the exit visa is a significant one for several reasons, although like most of the new reforms, it depends a great deal on how it is implemented. Nonetheless, by removing a state barrier to leave, this reform could lead to a large outflow—many of whom will eventually want to come to the United States—or it could begin to allow a circular flow of people that could enhance the economic opening of the island.”
The Cuban government probably hopes there will be a circular flow that will benefit the Cuban economy. There are now many small business owners in Cuba, but the government still controls most of the economy. The government wants to keep people employed and not make a sudden transition to a market economy that could bring instability.
Some Cubans were concerned that not many countries might be willing to give them a visa. A bank employee in Havana said: “It’s all very good. But which interesting country is going to give me a visa?” Another bank employee who is eligible for a Spanish passport because her grandparents were from Spain said that she could go but she had no idea where she would get the money to go. Given the conditions in Spain, she might wonder what she would do when she got there as well! The cost of a Cuban passport will increase under the new regulations to about 100 dollars.
At present there is an annual minimum of 20,000 resident visas for the US, a number agreed to by Cuba and the US. In the most recent budget year, the US issued about 43,000 visas to Cubans. Yet there is a multiyear wait for a visa to enter the US from Cuba.
No doubt Cubans will still travel to Mexico and sneak across the border or land illegally by ship from Cuba. These may be faster and simpler routes to the United States and legal residency.
The US has a policy of allowing any Cuban who manages to make it to US soil to be given legal status. US officials say they have no plans to change the policy after the new rules come into force.
Since the new law allows Cubans to stay abroad for two years, newly arrived Cubans will be able to obtain legal residency, which takes at least a year, but still retain rights back in Cuba. This is a huge advantage compared to their situation under the old policy.
Ted Henken, a Latin American studies professor at Baruch College, said: “Many recent Cuban immigrants will jump at this chance." The new rules will allow for more normal back and forth travel between the US and Cuba.
Spanish officials report that there are almost 200,000 Cubans who could qualify for dual nationality, that is, they can apply for Spanish passports and citizenship. Spain could see an increase in Cuban immigration. Mexico has already let in 30,000 Cubans this year and may face an even greater influx next year.
The new regulations may cause the US to adjust its own immigration policy which favors the Cuban immigrant according to Professor Pastor. The new Cuban policy may relieve some of the pressure for change in Cuba, since people can now move elsewhere if they do not like the situation in Cuba. However, given the economic situation in other parts of the world, Cubans may find it difficult to find a place to move.