Havana scraps exit visas, but most Cubans won't be going abroad
The new law will cut down on bureaucratic barriers for Cubans who want to leave the country, but for many the benefits will likely be more psychological than practical.
Havanaâ€™s Old Town is a colorful though faded grid of dilapidatedÂ houses punctuated by chess games and 1950s-era American cars.Â Neighbors chat from their doorways, like Estrella, who sits on aÂ knee-high box in front of her home.
â€śIâ€™d love to travel but itâ€™s so expensive,â€ť Estrella says, decliningÂ to give her surname for fear of reprisals from the government.
Exit visas are one of the first hurdles Cubans have had to face whenÂ it comes to travel. But a new law set to come into force today scrapsÂ the requirement for the costly â€śwhite card,â€ť allowing Cubans to travelÂ freely with just a passport.
â€śCubans, even if theyâ€™ve never applied for an exit visa, have alwaysÂ felt they had to ask permission to leave, so itâ€™s a big psychologicalÂ change,â€ť says Emily Morris, fellow at the Institute of the Americas atÂ University College London. â€śIt makes a difference to how they seeÂ their relationship with the state. It is no longer controlling them.â€ť
While doing away with one of the countryâ€™s most despised pieces ofÂ legislation is symbolically a huge step, in practice there may beÂ little effect on people like Estrella.
â€śIn reality, itâ€™s not a change for me,â€ť she says. The cost of anyÂ flight and even the passport itself are prohibitively expensive forÂ the vast majority of Cubans. And Estrella earns just $13.50 a monthÂ working for the state selling food. Thatâ€™s well below Cubaâ€™s averageÂ salary of $18 a month. â€śItâ€™d never be possible to go anywhere,â€ť saysÂ Estrella.
The strict exit visa laws were enacted in 1961, two years after formerÂ President Fidel Castroâ€™s revolution, in order to prevent a mass exodusÂ from the island.
Now, as the government begins to relax its hard-line policies andÂ Fidelâ€™s younger brother, President RaĂşl Castro, enacts economicÂ reforms, one more hurdle to Cubansâ€™ freedom looks to be falling.Â Recent economic reforms have allowed small private businesses such asÂ restaurants and guesthouses to grow, although they are constrained byÂ heavy taxation and regulation.
With the new law, islanders have to apply only for a passport and theÂ relevant entry visa for their destination. They will be allowed toÂ remain out of the country for as many as two years before they loseÂ certain rights in Cuba, such as health care and their property.
Estrella isnâ€™t the only Cuban who feels that the new law will have aÂ minimal impact on her life. Yoani SĂˇnchez is an activist and bloggerÂ who has been unable to travel outside Cuba in order to collect anyÂ awards for her activist work on the island. Ms. SĂˇnchez says that despiteÂ the lifting of the exit visas, travel outside the country wonâ€™t be aÂ given.
â€śThere will be more flexibility and a reduction in the bureaucracy andÂ in cost, but it doesnâ€™t give people directly the right to enter andÂ exit this country,â€ť SĂˇnchez says.
The activist plans to line up outside one of the countryâ€™s 195Â operational passport offices today. â€śIâ€™ll enjoy the illusion that IÂ can leave,â€ť she says.
SĂˇnchez worries about a â€śnational securityâ€ť clause, which could giveÂ the government the opportunity to prohibit travel to dissidents orÂ anyone it deems a threat to the state. There are more obvious caveatsÂ in the wording of the law that say that those of value to the revolution â€“ professionals such as scientists and engineers â€“ willÂ have a much harder time obtaining the necessary permissions to leave.Â This is in order to maintain the â€śhuman capital created by theÂ Revolution.â€ť
Doing away with the travel visa "is significant, at least in theory,â€ť says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. â€śThe question is whether there will be new obstacles to leaving, and, if so, will they be applied to high-profile cases?â€ť