Sat, Dec 24, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Cubans agog at chance to travel overseas

CUBAN INVASION?If Cuban President Raul Castro makes the changes, they could be a stunning wakeup call for the US, as they have potential to fuel a bilateral migration crisis

AFP, HAVANA

After half a century of Orwellian obstacles to travel, people are marveling at the thought that Cuban President Raul Castro was expected to unveil reforms yesterday that could let them see the world, and their loved ones, at long last.

“I hope Raul will remove the road block and that we will be able to travel without so many problems. It would be a great Christmas gift,” said Luis Pena, a 37-year-old engineer whose mother has lived in the US for 30 years.

Pena, optimistic and hopeful, yet cautious about whether the travel freedoms so many Cubans want so badly will materialize, said: “I don’t have any of my old childhood friends around any more. They have all left.”

The Roman Catholic Church and regime-friendly musicians such as Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes have joined a chorus of Cubans calling for an end to the rules, including one that penalizes “permanent emigrants.”

Cubans can leave the country in theory only when they have received a letter of invitation from overseas. Then they have to file for permission for an exit visa, just at the start of a maze-like bureaucratic process that costs about US$500.

They also need entry visas from countries to which they want to travel.

That might not all sound so insurmountable in wealthier countries, but workers in Cuba — doctors and street cleaners alike — make about US$20 a month.

So the system has kept travel painfully limited, year in and year out, from the Cold War through now, given that about one in six Cubans lives abroad. Separation from family and friends makes the issue a highly emotional one.

It has also drawn criticism from some rights groups about Cubans’ basic freedom of movement.

Since 2006, Castro’s government has ended several unpopular restrictions. Among other things, Cubans are now allowed to rent rooms in hotels geared to international tourism, sign mobile phone contracts and buy electric appliances.

In September, the government authorized Cubans to buy and sell cars, and this month private homes.

On Aug. 1, Castro announced that there would be forthcoming easing of travel restrictions, which started fueling hopes.

“Everybody is waiting for that law [change] ... really, nobody knows what is going to be approved,” said a more downbeat Adonis Gonzalez, 38, a driver who was waiting in line to get a Spanish passport as the grandson of a Spaniard, in order to be able to travel without fuss and high cost.

“Whatever gets approved on Friday, I don’t think anybody will be traveling anywhere on Saturday,” he added skeptically.

However, Pena was trying to stay optimistic. He has only seen his mom once in 30 years, though she lives only a 30-minute flight away in Miami.

Local experts believe Castro would end the requirement for exit visas (for Cubans at home), entrance visas (for Cubans living overseas who return home) and the legal status of “permanent emigrant.”

Those who are deemed to have left illegally (permanent emigrants) in essence are classed as defectors — their homes and assets are seized — and observers said Raul Castro was widely expected to make the announcement in an address to the National Assembly later yesterday.

“If like they are saying, all of that is eliminated, my mom could come more often” to visit, Pena said, hopeful that she would have a chance to see his new baby boy, her new grandson.

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