Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cubans may no longer be stuck on Caribbean isle

Cubans may no longer be stuck on Caribbean isle
The Christian Science Monitor
By A Cuba correspondent, Sara Miller Llana – Fri May 13, 2:15 pm ET

Havana and Mexico City – Ariel Pérez Romero, a security guard in Havana,
has never traveled outside Cuba. The government tightly controls
movement of its 11.2 million citizens, requiring would-be tourists to
purchase an exit visa. Many are denied.

"All Cubans are looking for a chance to travel, to know other places,
other ways of life, but here it seems that is a crime," says Mr. Pérez,
who dreams of a trip to Paris and London, and maybe a visit to Madrid's
Santiago Bernabéu soccer stadium to catch a Real Madrid match.

His dream came closer to reality this month when the Cuban government
published 313 economic reforms approved during April's Communist Party
Congress, the first held in 14 years as part of an economic shake-up
under President Raúl Castro. One of the most-talked-about points is to
"study a policy that allows Cubans living in the country to travel
abroad as tourists."

IN PICTURES: Cuba's underground economy

"I hope these new laws mean an end to all the paperwork and money that
it takes now," says Pérez.

The right of Cubans to buy a plane ticket, book a trip, and leave – a
given for most of the world – has been restricted since the 1959
revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. A cold-war relic designed
to prevent "brain drain," the exit visa is one of the most criticized
prohibitions in place on the island nation.

While travel is not forbidden, obtaining an exit visa is a prohibitively
expensive bureaucratic hassle altogether out of reach for the loudest
government critics. Cubans must ask for written permission, or the
"white card," which costs the equivalent of $150.

Symbolic gesture

As a practical matter, it may mean little to the majority of Cubans, who
cannot afford to travel. The average salary is $20 a month – that's also
what Perez earns – and many Cubans worry more about stretching food
rations through the month.

But it is a huge symbolic gesture. Of the 313 reforms, that bullet has
garnered the most public discussion. There is even a Facebook page with
more than 1,000 followers called "No More White Card or Permission to

"The right to travel freely, to be able to leave one's own country
without asking permission, is among the top five rights that Cubans
want," says Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College at The City
University of New York who visited Cuba in April to gauge public opinion
to the proposals.

Cubans doubt government

Some of the reforms proposed at the Communist Party Congress are already
under way, including laying off state workers. Rights to buy and sell
real estate or purchase automobiles are yet to come. They're all part of
President Castro's effort to bolster state coffers while holding onto
the socialist ideals ushered in a half century ago by his aging brother,
Fidel, who handed over the presidency in 2008. The 313 reforms lack
details, however, so the real scope and impact of change will not be
known until the finer print is hammered out when reforms become law.

Many wonder how far the changes will go. "Until it is official, I won't
believe it," says Mariela Febles Hernández, an accountant for the state
telecommunications agency, who doubts that freedom to travel without any
kind of control will happen. "If they allow trips, the vision of Cubans
would change diametrically, because we would be able to compare and see
what is positive and what is negative about living under this type of

Hundreds, and up to thousands, are denied the right to exit each year,
according to Human Rights Watch, and illegal "deserters" are not allowed
back on the island. Mr. Henken, who regularly organizes panels on Cuba,
invited one blogger to New York who was denied permission to leave the
island. Ciro Diaz of the punk rock band Porno para Ricardo was also
recently denied a visa, according to fan comments on Twitter.

"Cuba's travel restrictions provide the authorities with a powerful tool
for controlling what its citizens say about the government," according
to the 2009 Human Rights Watch report, calling the regulation a clear
violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which
establishes the principle that "everyone has the right to leave any
country, including his own, and to return to his country."

Yoani Sanchez still denied travel

Those who criticize the government have often been refused permission to
leave. Perhaps the most outspoken of them all is the blogger Yoani
Sanchez. She met with the Monitor in 2008 upon finding out she had won
the Ortega y Gasset award – essentially the Pulitzer Prize of Spanish
journalism – and was waiting to see if she would be able to fly to Spain
to receive it in person.

She was not. Instead, she gave an acceptance speech, published on her
website Generation Y, directed at family and friends in Havana.

In a September 2010 blog, Ms. Sanchez posted a photo of her denied exit
permit – it had been the eighth such refusal in three years. Since then
she has been denied several more times.

"Many people in the world can't travel because they don't have the
money, but they always have the hope to one day be able to do it," says
Ms. Febles. "Here, no, and that is what hurts."

•The Monitor contributor in Havana could not be named for security reasons.


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