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October 19, 2012

Migration Reform

When the Cuban government let its citizens know it had decided to loosen the rules on the right of Cubans to travel abroad, the news hit at 4am, in the Communist Party Newspaper, hinting that details would be released in an official journal, the Gazette, later in the day. By 9 am, the Gazette was sold out at most shops and the migration reform was officially the “bola” – the “scoop” –at bus stops, university classrooms and workplaces throughout the country.

Time will tell exactly how the changes play out – how many Cubans are actually able to travel abroad, and how many come back. However, it represents a major step forward in the civil liberties and human rights of Cubans and a reminder of the magnitude of change occurring in Cuba.

Travel is a fundamental right and Cubans are eager to experience it. With a highly educated population, 2 million Cubans living abroad, and 2 million tourists visiting each year, Cubans know what lies beyond the horizon and yearn to discover it. After all, founding father Jose Marti said that in order to love and understand one’s own homeland one must travel abroad.

Under the existing rules, it is bureaucratic and costly for Cubans to try and travel.  They must apply for an exit permit.  They must show the government a letter of invitation from a friend, family, or an overseas institution sponsoring their visit.  The government considers whether they’ll come back if they leave, and if the trip is in the country’s interest (not the citizen’s). Starting in January, most Cubans will simply need a valid passport and a visa from another country in order to travel.

Immigration offices in Havana were packed following the announcement. Thousands of Cubans lined up to solicit applications for new passports and renew expired ones. The flurry was the result of a combination of economics and new found hope. The current price of a passport is 55 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Starting in January it will be raised to 100 CUC. Many Cubans hope to save the 45 CUC and put it towards their eventual travel. Some simply want to be ready. “I don’t even know where I’m going to go, but now that I can travel I want to have my passport ready for when I figure it out,” said one man.

For others, traveling abroad is far from a reality and the change has more to do with their rights as citizens. “It’s like when they allowed Cubans into the hotels. I don’t have the money to stay in a hotel and I sure don’t have the resources to visit Italy, nor do I want to,” said a farmer in Pinar del Rio. “However I’m glad the government is no longer telling me what I can and can’t do.”

That’s only a part of the larger significance of what is happening.

First, in a country where shortages are commonplace and daily life is hard, access to hotels, cell phones and foreign travel is out of the reach of many, the travel restrictions are a reminder of the over-reaching arm of the state.  By eliminating what he has coined “excessive prohibitions,” Raul Castro has moved, albeit slowly, to extend the civil liberties of Cubans and reduce the role of government in certain issues. A huge step forward, it took over 4 years to finally occur and is just what one might have expected when the official rumors started to circulate in 2008.

Second, Cuba’s migratory policy has long been criticized by human rights groups and foreign governments. The United States, which prevents its own citizens from traveling to Cuba, has often chastised Cuba over the exit permit.  Now, the reform highlights the contradictions of U.S. policy, and will help convince the international community that things are changing in Cuba.

Third, ending the exit permit and taking down other obstacles to travel were a top demand of many Cubans, especially Cuban youth, whom the government eagerly needs to save the Revolution by creating a more dynamic economy. It buys the government goodwill and time.

-This change, along with other reforms to open the private sector and provide Cubans with more rights – such as owning cell phones and staying in tourist hotels – could convince more Cubans that things are changing and a brighter future awaits them at home. Previously, many Cubans wanted to travel because they knew it was off limits; the forbidden fruit. Even more hoped to travel to see the world. Restrictions made non-work, temporary visits extremely difficult and many Cubans therefore chose to travel abroad permanently, becoming émigrés rather than visitors. Under the new policy some Cubans are more likely to return home from trips abroad.  This can contribute to the country’s economic vitality and prospects for its future.

Notes of caution still apply.

Don’t expect a flow of Cubans to leave for trips abroad overnight.  They will still need to acquire visas from the countries where they hope to travel, which has often been a more significant obstacle than the exit permit. Cubans, like citizens throughout the Third World, have a difficult time proving that they will not overstay their visit and become permanent émigrés. This will continue to be the case. Most Cubans do not own property, have large bank accounts or hold high-paying jobs to prove strong ties to their home county as evidence they will return. One can imagine, however, that Cubans, as innovative and skilled at “playing with the rules” as they are, will quickly find a way.

Don’t expect a flood of tourism-bound Cubans to come to the U.S. either.  The average wait time for an appointment at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for a non-immigrant visa is 999 days. That is simply for an appointment. Most are then denied permission to visit, as it is nearly impossible for them to prove they won’t remain in the country and use existing policies to give them an automatic path to citizenship and a slew of other benefits along the way. More likely will be Cubans making their way to third countries and then crossing illegally into the U.S. to take advantage of their unique refugee status.

Those that attempt to downplay the importance of the change will point to provisions the government can use to deny or limit travel of professionals from strategic sectors and political dissidents like Yoani Sanchez, the well-known Cuban blogger.

Doctors, scientists and professionals will still need to receive permission to travel. It’s the government’s response to an unfortunate reality. It invests its scarce resources in the training of these individuals and then a flawed economy, combined with a cruel U.S. policy of encouraging defections of Cuban medical personnel and promoting illegal migration leads to the departure of many of Cuba’s best and brightest.

The new rules still enable Cuba to deny travel for reasons of “national security and defense” and thus prevent dissidents from traveling. That, however, would reduce the goodwill the changes will earn from foreign governments and international bodies for the change. Moreover, with the elimination of the exit permit, Cuba’s government will need to confiscate dissident passports or actually stop them from departing at the airport, which would most likely cause an even bigger stir than their previous efforts to limit travel.

Time will tell how many Cubans are able to travel and how many return. It could result in a further exodus of young Cubans needed in productive sectors at home. But, along with other reforms, it may also convince more Cubans to stay.

Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers have failed to grasp the magnitude of change occurring in Cuba and will cling to the counterproductive and, as the farmer in Pinar del Rio also noted, “stupid” approach to Cuba.  Now would be a good time for the U.S. to respond by ending Barrio Afuera, the program that recruits Cuban medical personnel to defect, and repealing the Cuban Adjustment Act. The two governments could agree to increase the number of diplomats in each other’s capitals so that more temporary visitor visas could be processed. Moreover, the State Department and the White House could commend the reform, as well as others that have been taken, as “positive” and think more about the Cuban people and Cuban reformers and less about hardliners in Miami and Havana.