Cubans made at least 257,000 trips abroad in the first 10½ months after the government eased travel restrictions — one of President Raúl Castro’s most popular reforms so far.
Interior Ministry Col. Lamberto Fraga, second in charge of the Interior Ministry’s Immigration and Foreigners Department, reported that 184,787 people made 257,518 trips, showing that some Cubans made more than one trip abroad.
A majority of the travelers have yet to return, Fraga said. They have 24 months to come back before they are considered to have emigrated, which would trigger the loss of their Cuban residency and benefits, such as free healthcare and education.
The 2013 figures were 35 percent higher than those for 2012, Fraga said in a videotaped interview with the Miami-based magazine Oncuba, owned by entrepreneur Hugo Cancio.
Castro’s reforms ended the widely reviled requirement for a government exit permit for personal travel, allowed Cubans to stay abroad 24 months instead of 11 months before losing their residency, and stopped the seizure of the homes and other properties of those who emigrate.
The changes have allowed dozens of dissidents who had been denied permission to travel abroad for years to make foreign visits. Prominent dissidents who have traveled include Berta Soler, Guillermo Fariñas, Yoani Sánchez and Elizardo Sanchez — although others have been denied permission to travel abroad.
Fraga said that 66,510 travelers, or 36 percent of the total, went to the United States, home to an estimated 2 million people of Cuban descent. Forty percent of them have already returned, including 7,712 whose visits lasted less than 30 days.
Another 40,212 Cubans have not returned, Fraga said, although they, too, have 24 months to return.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana issued 24,727 immigrant and 29,927 tourist visas in the one-year period that ended Sept. 30, El Nuevo Herald reported earlier this month. On average, 20 percent of the tourists remain in the United States as migrants.
The report also noted that more than 44,000 Cubans arrived in the United States as migrants in the same 12-month period, either directly from Cuba or through third countries such as Mexico and Spain. That’s the highest total since 1994.
Fraga noted that the U.S. law known as the Cuban Adjustment Act gives Cubans residency just one year and one day after arriving. Cuban migrants also receive benefits from federal and state governments.
“We are convinced that many Cubans, when they get to the United States, will wait the one year and one day to adjust their residency, and in this way … be able to return to Cuba and travel again to the United States without the need to request a new [U.S.] visa,” he said.
Fraga said the rest of the Cubans who traveled in 2013 went to countries such as Mexico, Panama, Ecuador and Spain. Of those, 61,982, or about 52 percent, have yet to return to the island, he told OnCuba.
The nation of 11.1 million people has been steadily dropping in population, largely because of low birth rates and high emigration — especially among the young. Demographers estimate that 30 percent of the population will be 60 and older in two decades.