The Cuban government’s bombshell decision to drop the widely hated exit permits required for citizens travelling abroad has unleashed “euphoria” on the island as well as concerns abroad over a possible mass exodus.
A decree published Tuesday made it clear the communist government will continue to decide who can leave the island, as it has since Jan. 9, 1959. It repeatedly noted that any Cuban could be kept from travelling “when the proper authorities so decide.”
“But there is an incredible euphoria here because what 1 million or more people here really want is to leave” for good or just to visit relatives or friends abroad, dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said from Havana.
University of Miami professor Jaime Suchlicki warned of a “legal Mariel.” And a pro-Cuba activist urged Washington to avert a possibly massive increase in the number of Cubans arriving by ending its wet-foot, dry-foot policies and the Cuban Adjustment Act.
State Department spokesman William Ostick said Washington welcomed the changes because they favor human rights, but warned Cubans not to “risk their lives” crossing the Straits of Florida and noted that they still need visas to enter most nations.
“Now the question is where, where can we go to,” said Katarina Ponce, a recently laid off government secretary, trying to figure out if any countries do not require Cubans to obtain visas in advance of their arrival. “Russia? Cambodia? Any place.”
Havana blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has been denied exit permits more than 20 times, wrote on Tweeter that “The devil is in the details of the new migration law” and called the decree “gatopardista” — a situation where change is more apparent than real.
The new rules appear likely to allow more average Cubans — those without political or other issues pending with the government — to travel abroad more easily, stay out longer and return with fewer complications, costs and paperwork.
They also may help ease some of the social and financial pressures ballooning inside Cuba under Raúl Castro’s decisions to reform the economy by laying off nearly 1 million state employees and cutting subsidies to the food, health and education sectors.
More than 1 million Cubans now live abroad, mostly in the United States, and about 7,400 islanders without visas arrived in the United States in the one-year period that ended Sept. 30. All Cubans who step on U.S. soil can stay permanently.
The decree noted that as of Jan. 14, Cubans will no longer need the exit permits, which cost $150 in a country where the average monthly wage stands at $20. They also will not need letters of invitation from their foreign hosts, which cost $200 to process.
The changes also extend from 11 to 24 months the amount of time that Cubans can spend abroad before they are ruled to have officially migrated and lose benefits such as health care. Further extensions are possible.
But the government retains final say on who gets passports because U.S. migration policies that favor Cuban migrants “take away from us the human resources that are indispensable to the economic, social and scientific development of the country,” according to a report Tuesday in the Granma newspaper announcing the changes.