Cuba: Cautious Welcome for Easier Emigration Rules

Authorities drop exit visa system, though they will still be able to block people from travelling.
  • Cubans will now be able to travel abroad more freely, thanks to the abolition of exit permits. (Photo: Tony Hisgett/Flickr)

From January next year, Cubans will no longer need to apply for permission to leave the country. The relaxation of travel rules is a major change, although the government will still be able to stop people leaving the country by refusing to give them passports.

A law announced on October 16 and in force from January 14 drops the requirement to obtain an exit permit. Cubans will be able to travel abroad freely as long as they have the latest version of the national passport.

The new law raises the cost of a passport from 55 to 100 convertible pesos, five months’ wages for many CubansThe “convertible peso” is an official currency operating in parallel with the normal peso and pegged to the US dollar at one to one.

The day the news was announced, Gertrude, a 35-year-old resident of the Havana neighbourhood of Mantilla, awoke as usual to the Radio Reloj station. She could not believe her ears when she heard that in order to go abroad, she would no longer need a letter of invitation from a family member or friend abroad, or apply for an exit permit from the migration office.

Dora Mirtha, who lives in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality of Havana, was more sceptical – she doubted things would be that easy.

"I envisage that the price of passports will double,” she said. “I don’t think the government will want to stop earning 150 convertible pesos per person for an exit permit. But I still feel almost free."

Ana, a resident of Buena Suerte in the Havana municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, was told of the change in a phone call from her husband Armando.

Armando had been planning to go to Italy and was waiting for a letter of invitation from his sister, who lives there. Since he no longer needs an invitation, he now plans to go to the United States instead.

Cuba’s travel restrictions have been criticised for breaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."

Official figures show that of the 940,000 Cubans who travelled abroad as private citizens rather than on business over the last 12 years, 120,000 did not return. Around 1.9 million people of Cuban origin live in the US, most in Miami, Florida.

One Havana resident fears Cubans will rush for the exit when the restrictions are relaxed in January.

"Cuba has virtually no aircraft. I don’t know how so many people are going to be able to travel, because as long as other countries give them visas, Cubans will do whatever it takes to emigrate anywhere," he said.

Independent journalist Alfonso Odelín is among those who believe the new passport will simply replace the exit permit as a way of restricting travel, since the authorities can simply refuse to issue it.

"We have to wait and see who qualifies when they apply for or updating their passports. We don’t know how [the law] will be interpreted… concerning individuals who cannot obtain a passport for reasons of defence and national security,” Odelín said.

Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a local human rights group, agreed that the situation would remain the same, with the authorities retaining “absolute control” over who enters or leaves the country.

Another reform, announced by Homero Acosta, secretary of the Council of State, in a special TV broadcast on October 24, will allow Cubans who have left the country illegally since 1994 and who have spent more than eight years abroad to return to the country. Doctors and athletes who have defected since 1990 will also be allowed to visit. The only people who will not be welcomed back will be those who got out via the US Naval Base at Guantanamo, which is located on Cuba’s southeastern coast. 

For Nelson, a resident of Havana’s Arroyo Naranjo municipality, the easier travel rules do not mean a thing.

"Perhaps the new laws are good, but I can’t go anywhere. I have no money, nor have I anyone who would pay for a trip," he said.

Nelson has made repeated attempts to get to the US in home-made boats. His travel method is "for free, by raft", he says. He has never yet reached his destination.

Laura Paz is an independent journalist in Cuba.

This story was first published on IWPR’s website.