U.S. watching as Cuba lifts curbs on exit visas

 

Passport offices are flooded on the island, but Cubans still need an OK from the U.S. to come here

 

John Lantigua, Palm Beach Post

 

After more than 50 years, Cuba last week ended a restrictive and costly emigration procedure that required Cubans to apply for exit visas, a change that has provoked long lines at passport agencies of Cubans eager to get off the communist island.

 

Just how many of the people will end up in the U.S. and especially South Florida is anyone’s guess, although most experts see no immediate large influx from the island.

 

Cubans will have to possess passports to leave, which cost about $100. But they must also buy airline tickets, which will be difficult for many Cubans, and obtain entry visas from countries willing to take them. The U.S. issues 20,000 visas per year to Cubans and there has been no indication from the U.S. State Department that number will increase.

 

It is expected that Cubans may try to go to third countries and that many of them will try to make it to the U.S. from there but how easy that will be is also yet to be seen.

 

“We don’t expect much is going to happen any time soon,” says Jorge Avellana, a Cuban American and executive director of the Palm Beach County Hispanic Human Resources Council. “There are a few countries in the world that don’t require Cubans to have visas to enter but most countries do and then they would still have to find a way to get here.”

 

But the changes have sparked excitement on the island and led many Cubans to the 195 passport offices now open. Among the changes, according to provisions published by the Cuban government: Cubans will be able to leave the island for as long as two years without losing their Cuba residency, as opposed to 11 months maximum now; minors can leave as long as they have the permission of their legal guardians; physicians, traditionally on a tight leash, will also be able to travel, although the new law says some “vital” professionals may face greater scrutiny; Cubans who had emigrated can return to the island for 90 days at a time, as opposed to the current 30 days.

 

Well known political dissidents have also been told they will be allowed to leave the island and return and are applying for passports. One of them, Yoani Sanchez, known around the world for her blog “Generation Y,” posted her joy -and skepticism- on Twitter. She reported that she had gone to a passport office in Havana and “the functionary who attended me has assured me that when I have the passport I will be able to travel. I still don’t believe it! When I am on the plane, I’ll believe it!”

 

Cuba watchers say it is the nation’s dire economic situation that is leading the sudden change in its exit policy.

 

“The economic situation is devastating there and they have to reduce the social pressures,” says Andy Gomez of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at The University of Miami. “They do that by letting people out.”

 

Jorge Duany, Cuba expert at Florida International University in Miami, agrees.

 

“If more people get out, the Cuban government can count on more remittances,” he says, using the term for money sent back to the island by workers employed in other countries. “And with more people able to go back and forth, you will see more merchandise being brought in — large televisions, computers, etc. That is already happening, but it will increase.”

 

But the weak global economy may dampen Cubans’ ability to emigrate.

 

“For those arriving here in Florida from Cuba, it isn’t easy to find jobs,” says Andy Gomez of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. “We have our own economic problems. The arrival of a lot of Cubans would be a real threat to our social infrastructure.”

 

Spain, another traditional destination of Cuban refugees, is in catastrophic economic condition, with unemployment over 25 percent.

 

At the moment, Cubans who manage to set foot on U.S. soil are allowed to stay and apply for legal residence after one year, under the provisions of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1996. Since the new Cuban migration laws allow Cubans to remain off the island for two years, conceivably a Cuban could arrive in the U.S., become a legal resident and then return to Cuba to live, something not possible now.

 

That has led some Cuba experts to say that, if a significant number of Cubans arrive, the U.S. may repeal that law.

 

“I think they should repeal it,” says Gomez. If the U.S. doesn’t, more Cubans may try to reach the Florida even by taking to the sea in rafts, he says.

 

“”No one wants to see another Mariel or balsero crisis,” says Duany, referring to two large Cuban rafter exoduses in 1980 and 1994. “I think we might see the U.S. tighten up those laws but it will depend on how many try to come.”

 

The U.S. State Department is keeping an eye on the situation.

 

“We cannot predict if the change in exit visa requirements will lead to a change in migration patterns from Cuba,’’ said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at a State Department briefing. “We continue to encourage people not to risk their lives by undertaking dangerous sea journeys.”

 

 

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Change in Cuba’s exit policy

 

• Allows Cubans with valid passports to leave the island, as long as they have an airline ticket and an entry visa from the country they intend to visit. They no longer need an exit visa from the Cuban government and a letter of invitation from a foreign country.

 

• Permits Cuban minors to leave the island with the notarized authorization of their parents or legal representatives.

 

• Allows Cuban doctors, whose travel has always been highly controlled except for official missions abroad, to travel like other citizens.

 

• Increases the amount of time Cubans may remain outside the country from 11 months to 24 months without losing their status as legal residents of Cuba. In the past, Cubans were allowed to stay off the island only 30 days and were forced to pay fees for each additional month, up to 11 months.

 

• Allows Cubans who had emigrated to visit the island for up to 90 days — 60 days more than currently allowed.

 

• Allows those who were previously barred from returning — including rafters and athletes and professionals who sought political asylum while on official trips abroad — to return. Those who escaped through the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo will still be banned for defense and national security reasons.

 

 

 

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