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Cuba eases travel abroad for many citizens


FIFTY years after the Cuban missile crisis, there are signs even Cuban government is beginning to relax.

The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it will ease its highly restrictive travel laws in January, allowing many Cubans to go abroad without first obtaining a hard-to-get exit visa.

The announcement in the Communist Party newspaper Granma marks a major shift in migration policy for the Havana government, which for more than 50 years has imposed tight controls on who leaves the island and how long Cubans may remain abroad without losing their citizenship benefits.

The strict laws have led many to risk leaving the island on fragile boats, rafts or inner tubes or to defect while abroad.

Obtaining an exit visa generally requires a marathon trip through the state bureaucracy and payment of hundreds of dollars in fees in a country where an engineer or a doctor makes $30 a month. And at the end of the process, many Cubans are simply denied the visa.

The visa requirement is one of the most widely loathed policies in the country, among the elites and ordinary people alike.

According to the notice published Tuesday, Cubans will no longer have to present a letter of invitation to travel abroad, and when they leave, will only have to show their passport and a visa from the country they are traveling to. The new rules will take effect Jan. 13.

The government also said it would allow Cubans to remain outside the country for 24 months before they risk losing their residency and their rights to state-provided housing, health care and schooling. Currently they must return home within 11 months.

There is, however, a catch.

"The update to the migratory policy takes into account the right of the revolutionary State to defend itself from the interventionist and subversive plans of the U.S. government and its allies," the government said. "Therefore, measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful."

What this means: Engineers, scientists, doctors, athletes, performers, pilots, military officers and others who have been educated by the state and are considered too valuable to lose will still be required to get exit visas.

The Cuban government has long complained about U.S. immigration policies that encourage a brain drain from Cuba — granting immediate residency, work permits and a quick path to U.S. citizenship to any Cuban who makes it to the shores of the United States, under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. (Cubans intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba, but those who make it to land are granted asylum.)

U.S. policy makes emigration especially enticing for Cuban doctors. The Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program allows Cuban doctors and other health workers who are overseas to enter the United States immediately as refugees.

"This is a major step, long in coming and long demanded by Cubans," said Julia Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The move is consistent with Raul Castro's presidency — slow to come but essential to building a more open society."

"Perhaps if the US stops its policy of inducing Cuban doctors to defect, they, too, will enjoy the same freedoms. But for now at least, a political and ideological icon of the past has been eliminated," she added.

Geoff Thale, a program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, said it remains unclear which categories of professionals will continue to need exit visas or how many individuals will be affected. And, he noted, "the Cuban government still maintains the rule that citizens who live abroad for an extended period of time can lose property and other citizenship rights."

But he and other Cuba watchers generally applauded the partial lifting of restrictions.

"The impact of this is big, because we Cubans have a desire to travel, just like everyone else," said Kirenia Nuñez of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission. "But for many it was only a dream."

Many Cubans are waiting to see how the new regulations work in practice, she said. "Who will be able to travel? How easy will it really be?"

The Obama administration has made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit their homeland and to send more money to Cuba to support relatives. Restrictions on other Americans wanting to travel to Cuba remain mostly in place.

Some US legislators are pushing to hold down the number of Cuban Americans going to Cuba and to limit the amount of money they send, saying that the funds and travel are propping up the Communist government led by Raul Castro and, before him, by his brother, Fidel.