By Rosa Tania Valdez and Jeff Franks
HAVANA | Fri Dec 23, 2011 5:24am EST
(Reuters) - Cuba is abuzz with speculation that President Raul Castro
will soon announce policy changes making it easier for Cubans to travel
abroad from their communist island.
Without being specific, he has promised to ease restrictions that make
it difficult for most Cubans to leave the island and return, one of the
biggest gripes about life under the government in power since Cuba's
Castro could disclose the reforms as soon as Friday, when he will speak
to a session of the National Assembly, but there are also rumours they
will be announced in early January.
The government has been tight-lipped about his plans, but Castro said in
an August speech to the assembly that change is coming.
He said officials were working to update migration policy with an eye
toward increasing ties with Cubans who have left the Caribbean island
and are living abroad.
Today's emigrants are leaving for economic reasons, not political, he
said, and "almost all still love their family and the homeland where
they were born."
Cuban exiles, who send more than $1 billion a year in remittances from
abroad, are an important source of money for the cash-strapped island
and are expected to bankroll small businesses and real estate purchases
now permitted under economic reforms by Castro.
How far he plans to go with travel changes remains to be seen, but
Cubans' hopes are high.
They want him to eliminate costly and time consuming requirements for
such things as government permission to both leave and return to the
island and for a letter of invitation from a friend or relative in the
country they intend to visit.
They also would like to see an end to limits on how long they can be
away and on the right to bring their children along on trips, both of
which are in place to encourage their return.
Cuba imposed travel restrictions to slow an exodus that began with the
1959 revolution and has continued only partly abated. An estimated 2
million Cubans live abroad with most of those in the U.S. and
particularly in Miami.
Castro said many of the rules "played their role in certain
circumstances," but then "lasted unnecessarily."
Cubans agree. They say they would like to visit family members abroad
and see more of the world than the island most have never left.
"Everybody has the right to travel, to know other countries for family
reasons, economic reasons, work reasons, and I think it would help the
development of Cuban society," student Jose Ricardo told Reuters in Havana.
"I have family in the United States and it would be good for me to go
see them," said retiree Ricardo Cuesta. "It would be good for everyone."
Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has been denied exit from the
country since 2004, said on Twitter that her bags are packed and she was
"ready to test the limits of the possible" by going to the airport as
soon as changes are announced.
"Rights are not to begged for, they are to be exercised," she said.
Even if the government loosens travel restrictions, Cubans still will
face visa requirements in many countries, including the United States.
But under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, the U.S. also allows them in
if they cross the Florida Straits and set foot on the beach. (Editing by
Kevin Gray and Anthony Boadle)