As Cubans embraced their first week as potential global travelers, the rest of the world pondered Cuba’s motivation in enacting one of its most sweeping reforms to date and how it might affect travel throughout the region.
And one ally responded swiftly to the prospect of an increase in Cuban visitors after the change took effect Monday.
The day after the reform allowing Cubans to travel without obtaining an exit visa or a mandatory invitation letter from a foreign host, Ecuador stiffened its own policy on visits by Cubans. Previously, Cubans were allowed to visit for up to 90 days with no entry requirements. Now, Ecuador wants Cubans to provide a letter of invitation from an Ecuadorean host, or from an immigrant residing in Ecuador, that promises to pay for the visitor’s expenses, including any medical costs.
The policy, which takes effect Monday, is aimed at creating an “orderly” flow of visitors and preventing human trafficking, Ecuador said.
“In some ways, Cuba is passing the buck to the receiving countries. This is a smart step politically speaking,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba expert and economics professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.
“If Cuba implements this new policy broadly, it will reduce the pressure for another Mariel,’’ he said. More than 125,000 Cubans came to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
Because Cubans will still need an entry visa to visit the United States, analysts say trips to countries that don’t require visas may increase and, in turn, back-door trips through those countries, with an ultimate goal of reaching the United States, also will increase.
“I think the Cubans are trying to preemptively address the pent-up demand for travel overseas as well as create a mechanism so they can continue to capture the benefits from those who travel aboard,” said Jonathan Benjamin Alvarado, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “I’m not sure they can pull this off. It’s a pretty critical moment for the regime.’’
Since Cuban Americans have been allowed to freely travel to Cuba and send unlimited remittances to the island, they have become an important source of funds and supplies for Cubans to launch their own businesses. Self-employment is now allowed in Cuba in a reform designed to move hundreds of thousands of people off state payrolls.
Cuba’s airports have bulged with supplies carried by friends and relatives to help the self-employment effort, although an increase in import duties last summer has cut into the amount of cargo that Cuba charter companies are currently flying to the island.
The strategy, said Julia Sweig, director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is to allow Cubans to make money independently of the state and invest in their country.
“The travel reform and the economic reforms are all of a piece,’’ she said. “Allowing Cuban citizens to partake of the global economy is the long-term strategy.’’
Under the reform, Cubans are also permitted to travel abroad for up to two years without losing their rights as Cuban citizens, which could set up a cyclical migration where they work abroad and then return to Cuba. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive in the United States can apply for asylum and are eligible for a green card after a year.