Thursday, October 18, 2012

932. Cuba Eliminates Exit Visas, Cubans Still Face Hurdles Obtaining U.S. Visa

New Cuban regulations for international travel

By Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2012
MEXICO CITY -- The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it plans to rescind the requirement that its citizens obtain exit visas in order to travel abroad, generating hope on the island that a longstanding bureaucratic hindrance to their freedom of movement will soon be removed.
The change in immigration policy was announced Tuesday in the official state newspaper Granma, with the details printed in the government's legal journal. Beginning Jan. 14, the news report said, Cubans wishing to leave the island temporarily will no longer need to obtain a government-issued “travel permit” -- a document that in the past has been withheld for political or arbitrary reasons.
How the new rules will actually change things for everyday Cubans remains to be seen. Much depends on the way the law is applied  and the fine print. Cubans will still need to obtain a passport to travel, and the new rules allow officials to deny anyone a passport for “reasons of public interest.”
The government also said it would maintain special travel restrictions for the professional classes because it fears that they could be lured away by high salaries abroad after benefiting from a low-cost socialized education -- an attempt, as the regime puts it, to preserve “the human capital created by the  revolution from the theft of talents practiced by the powerful nations.”
Even so, the initial reaction on the island was reportedly galvanizing. Philip Peters, a Cuba expert and vice president at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in  Arlington, Va., said that in the city of Cienfuegos, where he was traveling Tuesday, the newspaper had sold out and brochures explaining the changes had disappeared from the post offices.
“I talked to a guy today who was overjoyed because he has a brother in the U.S. and a brother in Canada, and he’s no longer blocked from seeing them,” Peters said. “People are very excited by this. It’s been a long time coming.”
The change is one of the most significant of a series of reforms enacted by Raul Castro, who took over the reins of government from his iconic, ailing older brother Fidel in 2006. Among other things, Cubans may now buy and sell houses and cars, open small businesses and own cellphones and computers.
The new travel regulations will extend the time Cubans are allowed to remain abroad from 11 months to 24 months or more, in some cases, pending government approval. They also eliminate the need for Cubans to obtain a letter from a person or institution inviting them to the country they wish to visit.
The policy may be a way for Castro to be rid of internal critics, who might use the policy to seek permanent exile abroad. Perhaps most dramatically, however, the move amounts to a big bet on the government’s part that Cuban citizens will choose to return home, even after visiting other societies that offer more individual liberties, better wages and more and better things to eat.
The result may not only affect Cuba but other nations in the hemisphere. In 1980, a temporary loosening of immigration rules on the island sent tens of thousands of Cubans seeking asylum to South Florida. The so-called Mariel boatlift, which included some criminals and the mentally ill, created a logistical and humanitarian crisis for the United States.
Under its “wet foot, dry foot” policy, the U.S.  allows any Cubans who make it to U.S. shores to apply for permanent residence after a year of good behavior. Now, notes David Abraham, an immigration law professor at the University of Miami, “every single tourist from Cuba who arrives in the U.S. will be immediately eligible for conditional permanent residence.”
But U.S. officials presumably would have a mechanism to check the inflow of Cubans because potential visitors from the island would  still need to obtain a U.S. travel visa. The State Department issued about 14,000 tourist visas to Cubans in fiscal 2011. In a news briefing in Washington on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. visa requirement “remains unchanged.”
Still, if the U.S. and  other countries are facing a potential flood of Cuban visa requests, they will be faced with the tricky task of determining who really wants to visit short-term and who is trying to get away from the island for good.
Obama administration officials welcomed the Cuban government’s decision to allow freer departures, which Washington has urged in the past, although officials said they need to see how liberally the new rules are implemented.
“We obviously welcome any reforms that’ll allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely,” Nuland said.
Longtime critics in the U.S. of the island's Communist government dismissed the changes.
 Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called them “desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing.”
Cuban dissident Elizardo Sanchez, who was reached on the island by phone, was similarly skeptical. “The government is admitting that people have a right," said Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. "But with so many limitations and hindrances, in practice thousands of Cubans will be excluded and discriminated against.”
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By Alicia A. Caldwell, Associated Press, October 17, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Cuba's surprise decision to make it easier for citizens to leave the country doesn't mean Cubans can book tickets on commercial planes and head for Miami.

Would-be immigrants and tourists still need permission from the U.S. government to enter America legally. With a multiyear wait for a visa, the average Cuban may not be leaving home any time soon.

"This may end up being ado about nothing," said a Cuban-immigration expert, Jose Azel of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.

A State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said Tuesday that the U.S. welcomes "any reforms that'll allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely. We remain committed to the migration accords under which our two countries support and promote safe, legal and orderly migration. Our own visa requirements remain unchanged."

Under those 1994 accords, Washington agreed to stop allowing Cubans caught at sea to enter the U.S. In 1995 the U.S. government began its "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that allows anyone who makes it to shore to stay, while those caught at sea are turned back.

Since then, thousands of Cubans who made the treacherous trip across the Straits of Florida have been rewarded with entry into the United States. Unlike illegal immigrants from almost any other country, most Cubans not only can stay but also seek legal residency and eventually citizenship.

The welcoming policy isn't just for Cubans who arrive by sea. In recent years, thousands of would-be immigrants have opted to hire smugglers to ferry them to Mexico, where they head over land to Texas. These "dusty foot" Cubans are allowed into the U.S. after medical screenings and background checks.
Azel said the end of the Cuban exit visa program "isn't likely to be a free for all" exodus like the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which lasted six months and ended with about 125,000 immigrants, including criminals and mental patients, making it to Florida.

Azel noted that nearly every Latin American country, including Mexico, requires an entry visa for Cubans.

Cuban President Raul Castro's decision was announced in the Communist newspaper Granma this week. In an accompanying editorial, the newspaper blamed the decades-old travel restrictions on U.S. attempts to topple the island's government, plant spies and recruit its best-educated citizens.

The new rules, which will go into effect in January, still let the government deny travel for reasons of defense and national security.

The reaction to Castro's decision was mixed. People in Cuba and Miami's exile community wondered how significant the change will turn out to be.

Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez took to Twitter to share her concern that the Cuban government might start denying passports to control who leaves.
"I have the suitcase ready to travel. ... Let's see if I get a flight for Jan. 14, 2013, to try out the new law," tweeted Sanchez, who said she has been denied an exit visa 20 times over the past five years.

Havana-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, called it "nothing more than Raul Castro's desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing."

For Cubans who have relatives living in the United States and want to leave the island, the end of the travel restrictions will likely make it easier to emigrate. Under the U.S. government's "Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program," Cuban immigrants living in the U.S. can sponsor relatives to move to the United States. If a regular visa is not available, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can opt to let them in anyway.

Immediate family members of immigrants already here, including spouses and unmarried children, are granted entry as long their sponsorship application is approved.

As part of the U.S. government's plan to reunite Cuban families, a minimum of 20,000 travel documents are made available annually. According to U.S. government statistics, about 43,000 visas were issued to Cubans in the most recent budget year, including both tourist and immigrant visas.

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