Cuba policy on Cuban-American travel to the island has political and economic tentacles

A man applying for a U.S. visa holds his U.S. Department of State forms and Cuban passport as he waits in line outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.
A man applying for a U.S. visa holds his U.S. Department of State forms and Cuban passport as he waits in line outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. AP

New travel regulations that Cuba announced over the weekend appear designed to make sure a steady flow of Cuban-American visitors continues.

But the rules — which include welcoming back Cubans who fled the island through irregular means, such as by rafts, and eliminating some of the bureaucracy associated with visits by the diaspora — also seem to be a response to a chill in the U.S.-Cuba relationship and a stricter Trump administration policy on travel between the two countries.

In the wake of mysterious auditory incidents that have harmed the health of 24 American diplomats causing ailments ranging from hearing loss to concussions, the U.S. government withdrew 60 percent of the personnel at its Havana Embassy because it said the Cuban government had failed to protect its diplomats. Then the U.S. expelled at least 15 diplomats (17 by Cuba’s count) from the Cuban Embassy in Washington.

The State Department also issued a travel warning to Americans visiting the island and has announced it plans to further restrict travel to the island, but hasn’t issued its new regulations yet.

These developments have threatened to put a crimp on travel between the two nations because there is only one consular officer left at the Cuban Embassy in Washington to process visas and other paperwork related to travel and a skeletal staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

There are still many questions about exactly how the new measures, which go into effect Jan. 1, will be implemented. But they could greatly increase the pool of Cuban exile and migrant travelers to the island and by extension the cash and gifts they bring to their relatives.

Last year, Havana Consulting Group estimated that cash remittances to Cuba rose 2.7 percent to $3.4 billion. Havana Consulting attributed the rise to an increase in Cuban migrants, who left mainly through informal means, and to the increase in flights between the United States and Cuba.

The new measures mean Cuba will forgo the $25 fee it collects for a habilitacion (facilitation) stamp required in the passports of some Cubans living abroad, but it will help prevent a bottleneck in paperwork from slowing travel to the island. A requirement that those who left Cuba after Dec. 31, 1970 must travel on a Cuban passport remains in effect.

Cuba said it undertook the changes as part of the “irreversible process” of updating its migratory policies and to strengthen ties with the Cuban diaspora but analysts say there are other reasons too.

“I think there are two elements: first, a reaction to Trump’s policies and second and not less important is the issue of the transition to a

new government in 2018. They would like to show a new face of Cuba that is open to the diaspora,” said Arturo López Levy, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who is now a lecturer at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley and New York University. Cuban leader Raúl Castro has announced he plans to retire from the presidency in February 2018.

“It is also evident that this change is motivated much more by the economic need to ensure a financial lifeline, ironically provided to the island’s economy by the diaspora, than by any principled decision to respect the birthright of members of the diaspora who should have an inalienable right to travel to or reside in the island of their birth,” said Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who specializes in Cuba.

“The government of the U.S. closes and Cuba opens,” said Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez when he announced the new measures Saturday during a Washington meeting with Cubans living in the United States. He said the policies of the Trump administration were politically motivated and damaging to the right of Cubans to “visit this country, to visit their families and to family reunification.”

But there’s a question about how open Cuba will really be, and whether doctors and others who abandoned official posts while abroad will also be among those welcomed back.

The only exception mentioned by Rodríguez was Cubans who left the country illegally by entering the U.S. Navy Base at Guantánamo Bay in their quest to reach the United States.

But Cubadebate, an online Cuban news service, said that doctors, diplomats and athletes in sports delegation who abandoned their posts while abroad would not be included among those who will now be able to return to Cuba without an eight-year waiting period.

“What matters is this appears to be moving in a positive direction, but in terms of the magnitude, this opening [to the diaspora] is still limited,” said López Levy.

There is still the Cuban passport requirement for some travelers as well as a $160 payment if Cubans living abroad want to extend their passports for an extra two years beyond the six years they are valid.

Regulations related to the new measures are expected to be published soon in Cuba’s Gaceta Oficial.

Others think the new measures will be interpreted more expansively.

“The big picture is that Cubans who left the island illegally, or in any manner, will no longer be sanctioned by the Cuban government for traveling back home,” said Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers, a company that handles travel arrangements to Cuba. She expects travel to the island by Cuban Americans will increase. “The new regulations say to Cubans thinking about leaving the island, go ahead because you can always come back.”

In January 2013, Cuba liberalized its migratory policies by doing away with a reviled exit visa and permitting Cubans to travel and stay abroad for up to two years without losing their rights as Cuban citizens.

Since then, Rodríguez said 779,000 Cubans living on the island have traveled abroad with 79 percent of them traveling for the first time.

That new ability to travel has helped encourage a commuter traffic where Cubans can be paroled into the United States and then get permanent residency and green cards under the Cuban Adjustment Act after they’ve been here a year and a day. As long as they return to Cuba within the two-year window, they can still receive free medical care and other rights of Cuban citizens, and some travel back and forth, taking advantage of benefits both in the United States and Cuba.

The Cuban Adjustment Act has long been an irritant for Havana, and Rodríguez said Saturday that it wouldn’t be possible to have absolutely normal migration to the United States while it is still in place.

Other changes announced Saturday also could expand the pool of potential travelers to the island:.

▪ Children of Cubans living abroad who were born outside Cuba may now apply for Cuban citizenship. That opens more doors to Cuban inheritance laws and means those born outside Cuba of Cuban parents who choose to acquire citizenship would be eligible to inherit family properties, said Julio Cesar Guanche, a lawyer and expert on Cuba’s constitution.

▪ Cubans residing abroad also may now enter and leave Cuba in recreational boats as long as they pass through Marina Hemingway or the Gaviota-Varadero Marina. Other marinas are expected to be gradually added.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres