Cuba said Thursday it will welcome back tens of thousands of its citizens who left illegally — including rafters, doctors and baseball players — in the second round of a migration reform it claims will help normalize relations with Cubans abroad.
Havana has barred the return of rafters since its 1994 migration accord with the U.S. government in order to deter risky escapes across the Florida Straits. But the ban is not part of the accord and is not expected to affect the agreement or U.S. policy.
“We will normalize the temporary entry to the island of those who emigrated illegally after the 1994 migration accords,” Homero Acosta, secretary of the ruling Council of State, announced in a television appearance late Wednesday.
Also allowed to return will be medical personnel and top athletes who left illegally or defected while abroad after 1990 and who have been out for more than eight years, as well as Cubans who left when they were 16 or younger and those who want to return for humanitarian reasons, like caring for ailing relatives.
The change is expected to allow the return of many Cubans now banned from the island, estimated any anywhere from 70,000 — mostly rafters — to 300,000, including important Cubans branded by Havana as defectors and even traitors.
Still banned are those who escaped through the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo in southeastern Cuba, Acosta added, “for reasons of defense and national security.” Havana also can ban the return of those who “organize, encourage or participate in hostile actions against the political, economic and social basis of the state,” and anyone at all “when reasons of defense and national security require it.”
Cuban ruler Raúl Castro announced last year that he wanted to reform the country’s migration regulations “as a contribution to the growth in the links between the nation and the communities of its emigrants.”
But most analysts outside the island believe Castro wants to squeeze more money out of migration so that he can finance the dramatic economic reforms that he has been pushing since 2007.
“It is time to do justice to the poorest of the migrants, the rafters, even if this will generate tens of millions of dollars for the government by way of passport and other fees,” said Pedro Gonzalez Munne, a Miami businessman who monitors travel to Cuba.
The fee for Cuban passports rose from $60 to about $110 in the first round of migration reforms announced last week, which lifted the hated requirement of exit permits for Cubans who want to travel abroad. Havana retained the right to block any travel.
“I have to submit a humanitarian request so that someone can decide whether to allow me to return to where I was born? … Big deal!” said Juan Antonio Blanco, a former analyst with the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee now living in Miami.
Although the number of Cubans living abroad is critically important for its economy — cash remittances were estimated at more than $2 billion in 2011 alone — the exact details of the migration flows are almost impossible to obtain.
Nearly 2 million Cubans are estimated to have emigrated since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, and about 85 percent now live in the United States.