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Cuba eases despised foreign travel restrictions

17 october 2012, 19:12
0
Cuban Cruz Duran shows her passport with a travel permission. ©AFP
Cuban Cruz Duran shows her passport with a travel permission. ©AFP
Cubans will no longer need an exit permit to travel abroad from January, the communist regime said on Tuesday, in a major overhaul of a half-century-old policy despised by the island's citizens, AFP reports.

The changes are the latest in a series of gradual reforms implemented in recent years by President Raul Castro, who took the helm from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2006.

But the government indicated that it would maintain some limits to avoid a "brain drain" that it blamed on the United States.

The bureaucratic headache and costs behind the exit visa, known as the "white card," have trapped many Cubans in their own country, prompting legions to leave illegally, often in risky boat trips to nearby Florida.

The United States and Cuban exiles cautiously welcomed the changes, which could trigger a new rush to Florida, just 90 miles (145 kilometers) north, when they come into effect on January 14.

Under the new rules, Cubans will only need a passport and a visa from the country of destination to leave the island, and the period allowed for overseas stays will be extended from 11 to 24 months.

A burdensome requirement -- a letter of invitation from someone abroad -- will be scrapped.

Cubans rejoiced at the prospect of avoiding red tape that can cost up to $500 in a country where monthly salaries average $19.

"This reform is the news of the year in Cuba," Grisel Vega, 41, said at an emigration office in Havana where she was doing paperwork to visit her sister in the United States.

"Too bad that it doesn't come into force today, because I would save time and money," she said.

But under the new rules, people who play "vital roles" in the country, such as soldiers, engineers, doctors and athletes, will need authorization from their superiors in order to get a passport.

The government also said a passport can be denied to Cubans who have a criminal record or a government debt, or for "national security and defense" reasons.

The official daily Granma said Cuba will keep measures "to defend itself" as long as "'brain theft' policies aimed at taking away human resources essential to our country's economic, social and scientific development continue."

Cuba has pressed the United States for years to stop granting automatic residency to Cubans who set foot on US soil -- a right the United States does not grant so quickly to people from other nations.

The US State Department said Havana's decision was "consistent" with international human rights laws that allow people to "leave any country, including their own, and... to come in and out."

"So we are analyzing, obviously, all of the details and any implications it may have for our processing," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Around two million Cubans live abroad, 80 percent of them in Florida. Cuba's population stands at 11.2 million.

The Cuban foreign ministry said the latest changes "take into account the right of the revolutionary state to defend itself against interference and subversion by the US government and its allies."

"For this reason, measures will be maintained which are aimed at preserving the human capital created by the revolution from the plunder of talent by the more powerful (countries)," it said.

Cuban opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez, who says she was denied exit permits 20 times, voiced doubt that she would be allowed to travel.

"My friends tell me not to get my hopes up with the new 'migration law,'" she wrote on Twitter. "They tell me I'm on the 'black list.' But I will try."

Cuban exile groups in the United States cautiously welcomed the changes.

"In principle... it is good news for Cubans so that they can begin to have a little bit more freedom," Omar Lopez Montenegro, human rights director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), told AFP.

But he added that "a passport is something that must be given freely to everybody," noting that "there are requirements that remain unclear."

Exiles also want to know whether Havana will allow Cubans to freely return to their home country.

Though a "white card" can be extended 10 times, Cubans must return to the island after it expires or lose the right to reside in Cuba.

The changes to travel rules follow economic reforms implemented by Raul Castro over the past two years to modernize Cuba's state-dominated economy, which has suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But US lawmaker Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the US House of Representatives' Foreign Relations Committee, said the reforms were just a Castro ploy "to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing."

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