Thursday, December 22, 2011

Communist Cuba set to end travel restrictions

Communist Cuba set to end travel restrictions
Thursday, Dec 22, 2011

HAVANA - President Raul Castro is Friday expected to announce an end to
onerous, unpopular travel restrictions that have been in place for
almost 50 years and which keep most Cubans from traveling abroad.

The Roman Catholic Church and regime-friendly musicians like Silvio
Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes have joined a chorus of Cubans calling for
an end to the rules, including one that penalizes "permanent emigrants."

And observers say Castro is widely expected to make the announcement in
an address to the National Assembly.

"Cuba normalizing its relations with Cubans who have left the country is
going to have to include eliminating all restrictions," analyst Jesus
Arboleya said in a recent interview in the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical.

To travel abroad legally, Cubans have to obtain an expensive exit permit
as well as a passport - this in a country where the average monthly
salary is about 20 dollars.

The exit permit, which is granted for 30 days, can be renewed 10 times,
and can also be denied. Travelers who let their exit permits expire are
declared "deserters."

As so-called "permanent emigrants," the assets of these illegal
travelers are promptly seized, and they are not welcome to return to home.

Among the changes anticipated in official media: the maximum allowable
stay abroad will increase from 11 months to two years, but on a
renewable status.

That will spell a de facto end to the "permanent emigrant" status, and
should mean that no one's assets will be confiscated any longer, and no
one will be less than welcome to return to their homeland.

Cuba will be asking for its emigres to travel home on Cuban passports
even if they are nationals of other countries, officials say.

In recent reforms, Raul Castro, 80, has authorized the sale of personal
possessions by emigres as a sort of halfway step toward ending
confiscation of personal goods.

The president has said reforming travel restrictions aims, among other
things, to preserve "human capital created by the Revolution."

It is not just about stemming a "brain drain" - it is also tremendous
business for the only communist regime in the Americas, which is
politically and economically isolated, and desperate for cash.

The incomes from medical service staff working abroad and paid to the
Cuban government now tops $6 billion a year, making Cuban overseas
medical staff - not sugar exports or tourism - Cuba's top hard-currency
earning industry.

Professionals, especially Cuban-trained doctors, whom the government
sends overseas on foreign-currency earning and cooperation contracts,
will still have to seek permission for every single trip they make.

If doctors make a little over $20 a month in Cuba, they might make a few
hundred a month working in Venezuela, Uganda or Haiti; if they leave for
the United States, they might make more than $10,000 a month.

Cuban doctors fled Cuba en masse at the beginning of the revolution led
by now retired Cuban icon Fidel Castro, 85. Only 3,000 were left in the
country, and the health care system collapsed. Now there are more than
76,000 in a country of 11.2 million.

In 2006, the United States said that any Cuban doctor in a third country
could get a US entry visa for themselves and their family. In a reprisal
Cuba slapped its toughest travel restrictions on its own doctors.

Back in August, the president said migration reform was in the works,
promising better ties for the two million Cubans - about one in six
Cuban nationals - who live abroad. Although they live in more than 40
countries, 80 percent live in the nearby United States.

Since 2006 Raul Castro's government has ended several unpopular
restrictions. Among other things Cubans are now allowed to rent rooms in
hotels geared to international tourism, sign cell phone contracts, and
buy appliances - a government energy saving measure.

In September, the government authorized Cubans to buy and sell cars, and
this month private homes.

Cubans are extremely keen for the government to eliminate its onerous
restrictions on travel abroad.

If Havana makes that move, it could be a stunning wake-up call to the
United States, which as part of held-over Cold War policy, still grants
any Cuban who reaches US soil legal US residency on request. The United
States does not have this policy for nationals of any other country.

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