Cubans lined up at passport agencies, photocopying machines and some embassies Monday on the first day of a migration reform that promises to allow them to make more personal trips abroad after almost exactly 54 years of bitterly hated restrictions.
In a hint of the possibly profound impact of the changes, Havana blogger Yoani Sanchez and dissident Guillermo Fariñas, who together have been denied permission to travel abroad more than 24 times, said authorities told them they will be allowed to leave and return.
“I still don’t believe it,” Sánchez, who stood in line since late Sunday outside the passport office in her neighborhood, noted in a Tweet on Monday. An office employee told her she would get a new passport in 15 days, Sanchez added, because her current passport is too full of visas she was never allowed to use. “I swing between hope and skepticism.”
In Miami, Cuba travel agent Vivian Mannerud said her Airline Brokers Co. received phone inquiries from some of the 70,000 rafters who left the island illegally and had not been allowed to return by Havana under the old migration system.
“They can now return, with the same requirements as for other Cubans who return: a valid Cuban passport and a visa,” she noted, referring to re-entry permits issued by Havana.
The reforms, which most importantly lift the requirement for exit permits — Cubans can technically now travel abroad with just a passport and a visa from the destination country — was one of the most popular measures undertaken by ruler Raúl Castro.
“Before, it was impossible to travel abroad. Now it’s expensive and difficult but at least it’s possible and one can dream,” said Olga, a university researcher who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of government retaliation for speaking to a Miami journalist.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Monday in Washington that the reforms were positive but added that “Cuba remains one of the most repressive countries on the planet.”
Cubans and foreigners in Havana said the first impact of the migration reforms was felt in passport offices, where long lines of people waited to apply for new documents, to renew existing passports or simply to ask questions about the requirements.
An announcement posted in the passport office that Sánchez used warned that to avoid “inconveniences” those who will still require employers’ permits to leave the country “or others referenced ” in the new migration regulations should not simply head to the airport. The measures make it clear the government can still deny passports to “vital” professionals or cases of “national security.”
Sánchez also reported that her waiting line at one point hit 70 people and noted it included a surprising number of children. Until Monday, minors were usually allowed to travel abroad only if their families were leaving for good.
Photo shops and photocopiers were busy with customers who needed photos and copies of documents for passport applications, according to Havana residents, and lines were seen early Monday outside some travel agencies and airline offices as people asked about prices and routes.
But initial reports of long lines at embassies and consulates appeared to have been exaggerated, with only the Mexican and Russian embassies reported to have seen a significant increase in visa inquiries at the end of business Monday.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana did not see any increase in its perennially long line of visa applicants Monday because only Cubans with consular appointments, usually set one year or more in advance, can enter the complex, according to one foreign diplomat.
Although no mass exodus of Cubans is expected, said Havana human rights dissident Elizardo Sanchez, there are “several million Cubans who dream of leaving the island, as though it were a prison.”
Most countries require Cubans to obtain visas in Havana before they travel there. But at least 15 and perhaps as many as 35 require either nothing at all or “tourist cards” that can be bought on arrival at their airports.
Fariñas, who won the Sakharov Prize for human rights awarded by the European Parliament in 2010, said a group of senior State Security officials turned up at his home Monday in the central city of Santa Clara to inform him that he would be “permitted to leave and return.”
“These are some of the same people who repress us dissidents on a daily basis, so yes, yes, their visit was a little surprising,” he told El Nuevo Herald by telephone. Fariñas said he was denied exit permits four times, while Sanchez has been denied about 20 times since 2002.
Ladies in White leader Berta Soler said she has not received any similar notification, but would like to travel to France to pick up the Sakharov Prize that the dissident women’s group won in 2005 but was never allowed to pick up in person.
The exit permits were first required Jan. 9, 1959 as Fidel Castro’s guerrillas tried to block the escape of supporters of the toppled Batista government. And while Cubans hated it intensely, a recent government report claimed that from 2000 to 2012 only .6 percent of the requests were rejected.
The same government report noted that during the same period, 941,953 Cubans travelled abroad — an average of 72,457 per year in a nation of 11.2 million — and that “only” 12.8 percent did not return. Those figures do not match U.S. government reports showing that 38,000 to 40,000 Cubans arrived in the United States alone per year in the past decade.
The Communist Party’s Granma newspaper noted in an editorial Monday that the reforms were designed to “make sure that migratory movements are carried out in legal, orderly and secure manner, as well as to strengthen relations with emigrants.”
In contrast, it added, the U.S. policies that favor Cuban migrants, such as the Cuban Adjustment Act and the so-called “dry-foot, wet-foot” policy, are designed with the goal of “hostility, subversion and destabilization and against the legitimate interests of our country.”
U.S. efforts at “stealing” Cuban brains, such as special U.S. considerations for Cuban doctors who defect while on foreign assignments, justify the need to restrict the departures of professionals and others with skills that are vital for the country, Granma added.
“A minority group of persons will be subject to special regulations on their departures from the country, which does not imply a prohibition but rather that they will have to receive the appropriate approval,” the newspaper added.