Cuba Illegal Exit
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You Can Check Out Anytime You Like…

Why the Cuban government's new law relaxing travel restrictions isn't

what it's reported to be.


HAVANA — "Will the last to leave turn off El Morro," goes a popular

Cuban joke. The witticism, which refers to the famous lighthouse in

Havana Bay, satirizes the ongoing exodus of Cubans. But over the last

few weeks, the joke has taken on a new variation, "Will the last to

leave disconnect the Comandante," people say. And indeed, it sometimes

seems like ailing Fidel Castro is in line to be the last representative

of homus cubanis left on our archipelago.

International travel is a traumatic subject for Cubans. For decades, the

possibility of temporarily leaving the country has been a privilege of

the politically trustworthy. For the rest of us, the absurd procedures

for obtaining permission to travel include endless paperwork,

stratospheric prices for each step in the process, and an ideological

filter that makes it nearly impossible for government critics to pass

through. And of course, those who leave the country without permission

are considered traitors — never to be seen again.

Stories of families separated by this immigration absurdity abound on

all sides: parents who never returned to see their children, marriages

capsized by the distance, dissidents forced to leave permanently because

they were not allowed to take a trip. The late salsa legend Celia Cruz,

who spent most of her adult life living in the United States, was not

authorized to enter Cuba and say goodbye to her mother when she lay

dying in Havana. We have all suffered in one way or another from these


In my case, the prohibition on leaving the island has come to feel like

a life sentence. In just five years, the Cuban government has refused to

grant my requests to travel outside the country 20 times. My drawers are

full of letters of invitation, airline tickets expired for never having

been used, and even photos of events and ceremonies held abroad where an

empty chair sat in my place.

On Oct. 2, we received a bit of hope, when the Official Gazette of the

Republic of Cuba published Decree Law 302 introducing a number of

changes in the existing travel and immigration restrictions.

People crowded the newspaper stands to buy a copy of the country's

highest legislative organ to learn the details. Telephones rang off the

hook, especially in those families where there is a relative in exile

who hasn't been able to return in years. In addition, those who had long

been planning to live in, or visit other parts of the world, felt the

time had finally come to make their dreams a reality.

The changes — scheduled to go into effect on January 14, 2013 —

include the elimination of the so-called Letter of Invitation, a

document required from the country to which Cubans wanted to travel.

Without this in hand, it was impossible even to submit a request for

authorization to travel. As a consequence, people could only travel to

countries where they had a friend or family member. The preparation and

receiving of the "Letter of Invitation" was a process filled with

anguish, and could often cost cash-strapped families over $200.

The even more significant change was an end to the disgraceful exit

permit, popularly known as the "White Card." Until last month, we Cubans

were among the very few citizens of the world who needed the consent of

the Ministry of the Interior to leave our own country. The reasons for

the continuation of the policy weren't only political — at $170 per

White Card, the program was an attractive source of revenue for the


Following the announcement, the international press reported with great

excitement that Raul Castro's regime was opening the national borders.

But for Cuban citizens, the joy lasted just about as long as it took to

read the 31 pages of the new law.

By the evening Oct. 2, the early critiques of the reform were already

emerging. Health care professionals noticed that they were still

required to obtain permission to travel. The Cuban government defends

travel restrictions for doctors and scientists with the argument that

the "brain drain" could take many of them to countries that pay better

salaries. Thus, in the newly released law, state control is actually

strengthened over the travel of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and even

laboratory workers.

The fine print of Decree Law 302 doesn't stop there. The restrictions on

leaving are even more severe for other professionals such as teachers

and professors. Frightened by the growing loss of personnel in the field

of education, Cuban leaders are trying to put a brake on escapes from

the classroom. And they are doing it in the way it has always been done,

not by paying better salaries or improving working conditions, but by force.

One of the perverse incentives unleashed by this strategy is expected to

be enrollment declines for professional, legal, and engineering studies.

If students know ahead of time that once they graduate in certain

specialties it will be very difficult for them to travel, they will

avoid getting degrees in them. A measure intended to fight "brain drain"

could generate a decrease in the numbers who aspire to higher education.

Notably absent from the new relaxations are Cuban emigrants. The time

allowed for their visits home was increased — from 60 to 90 days, but

the right to reside permanently in the country of their birth has not

been returned to them. Repatriation for these people will have to be

processed in the Cuban consulate of their country of residence, and will

only be authorized in very specific cases, such as terminal illness or


Nor will these immigrants who return home be permitted to own property

on the island, to buy houses or cars, or to inherit any of these

possessions. Under the new law, Cubans around the world will continue to

be third-class citizens, who support the economy — with their

remittances — of a country that doesn't not want them back.

As for the infamous White Card, it's true that Cubans will no longer

need an exit permit to travel, but they will still need permission to

possess a passport. So, when citizens apply to get this document, they

will find out if they are among those who are allowed to cross the

national borders or if, on the contrary, they are among the group

condemned not to leave. Where once we had to wait for the White Card,

now the little blue 32-page pamphlet will have the final word. The

"permission to leave" had changed its color and name, but still stands.

So what does this mean for the regime's declared enemies? The

dissidents, activists, independent journalists, and bloggers, who were

previously unable to travel, will very likely still not be able to do so

next year. The crafters of the new law were careful to build in features

the government can use to punish its political adversaries with

imprisonment on the island. In articles 23 and 25 of the new decree, for

instance, we learn that passports can be denied "when reasons of

National Defense and Security require it," or "when for other reasons in

the public interest as determined by the empowered authorities."

So we shouldn't hold out much hope that in the coming year the Ladies in

White, Sakharov Prize Winner Guillermo Farinas, and other members of the

opposition will finally be able to accept their international invitations.

I believe it's possible I may hold the sad record of being the person on

this planet with the most unused travel visas. My passport is covered in

stickers that say I am — or was — welcome in a dozen countries. I've

left a lot of people waiting in airports.

Although the new law leaves the government the ability to continue to

prevent me from accepting those international invitations, I want to

believe there is hope. So, I have packed my suitcase, put in some

clothes, a pair of shoes, and the image of the Virgin of Safe Journeys

given to me by a friend several years ago. On Jan. 14, I will be in my

local office to ask for my passport. An official dressed in olive green

will tell me yes or no. Meanwhile, my blog, my tweets, my words, will

continue to scurry in their various forms through the bars of the absurd

travel and immigration laws.

Whatever comes of it, we cannot dismiss the impact these travel and

immigration relaxations will have on Cuban society. Much of it won't be

good. The new law will increase in the number of Cubans who will live

halfway between Madrid and Havana, Buenos Aires and Camagüey, Berlín and

Guantánamo — citizens who will spend the better part of their time

outside the island, but maintain their properties here in the hopes of

better times. The cleavage of the Cuban population, between those who

are politically and economically permitted to have contact with the

outside world and those who can't even think of spending the $110

required for a passport, will become sharper.

Travel and immigration reform has proved imperfect, insufficient, and at

times frustrating. But in a system controlled so tightly for so many

years, any small change can trigger unpredictable consequences. But if

there is a saving grace, it's that Cubans know the their pressure and

international public opinion have forced the government to relax and

reduce the paperwork to enter and leave the country.

Also, the increasingly doddering Fidel Castro is no longer in charge of

the national ship and can no longer oppose relaxation of so many of the

controls he always maintained with great severity.

Perhaps this is why the jokes on the street suggest a connection between

a possible mass migration and the prolonged illness of the Commandante

en Jefe. It is no longer Havana's El Morro that will be turned off with

the last Cuban to leave, but the prolonged stubbornness of one who

condemned us to an island immobility that is due to come to an end.

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