Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cubans dream of being tourists - abroad

Cubans dream of being tourists - abroad
Roberto Leon / NBC News
By Mary Murray, NBC News Producer

HAVANA, Cuba – Imagine having the right to get a passport, but not
having the right to get it stamped.

That's been the de facto policy in Cuba for half a century where people
are basically barred from packing their bags to take a trip abroad just
for fun.

Under the current policy, any Cuban wanting to travel abroad needs
permission to leave the country, a process that many find not only
demeaning, but expensive. Any request can be turned down, often without
the applicant learning the reason why, but always after paying $150 to
process the paperwork requesting the exit permit.

Between the cost of the passport and other documents, Cuban travelers
abroad pay close to $400 – not counting airfare. Those costs make travel
out of reach for most Cubans who, on average, bring home about $20 a
month. (Cubans get by on such paltry incomes thanks to subsidized rent
and groceries, free education and health care, as well as remittances
from relatives living abroad)

But, like other restrictions that have defined Cuban society for far too
long, this seems destined for the island's dustbin as reform-minded
President Raul Castro streamlines his government's invasive bureaucracy.
On Monday, Cuba's congress agreed to "study a policy" that would ease
the bureaucratic obstacles that keep Cubans from traveling. Castro's aim
is to limit government meddling, while cutting costs to salvage the
bankrupt national treasury.

Most people on the island seem to think along the same lines as
25-year-old Nuvia Centeno, who runs a telephone switchboard in the Cuban
capital. She's delighted by the proposed change, and doesn't care much
why the government is dumping the travel ban.

The right to travel "seems like something basic, something people in
other countries take for granted," she said.

Havana TV repairman Alejandro Blas, 58, agreed. "For 50 years, we've had
this myth – the whole world can come here, but we can't go there…What
are we afraid of? What is the government afraid of? That people stay
abroad and don't come back? Who cares!"

Rodney Martinez, 35, earns a good living driving tourists around Havana
in a three-wheeled bright yellow taxi-scooter called a "Coco-Taxi"
because it resembles a big coconut. "I see kids from all over the world
coming here on vacation, so why shouldn't I be able to go to wherever my
money can take me? I'd love to visit Europe, Italy, Spain."

It's not clear when the rules will be altered. A document on some 300
proposed reforms released this week by Cuba's ruling Communist Party
states: "Study a policy that allows Cubans living in the country to
travel abroad as tourists."

That vague statement though was enough to get the TV repairman Blas
envisioning what foreign destination he would fly to. "I've been to
Africa twice as a soldier, but I never really wanted to go there. I want
to go to Mexico to see the Aztec ruins and to the Sahara Desert and to
the United States and to all the countries in Latin America. That's to
say, that's where I'd go if I had the money."

While that remains the big "if" for most Cubans, long-time Cuba expert
Phil Peters argues it's important just to be able to dream.

"Some can afford it, many cannot, and many would have airfare paid by
relatives abroad. What would matter most is that the government would no
longer be restricting the exercise of a basic human right," said Peters
from the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think-tank. "That would
be a big step forward."


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