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Cubans may no longer be stuck on Caribbean isle

President Raúl Castro's economic reforms in Cuba appear set to deliver long-sought freedom, even if few can afford to go anywhere.

By A Cuba correspondent, Staff writer / May 13, 2011

A man unloads bags at Havana’s international airport. The Communist Party’s newly released economic guidelines say the government will study the possibility of letting Cubans travel abroad as tourists.

Franklin Reyes/AP

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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.

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"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."

"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 Leave."

"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.

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