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.

Franklin Reyes/AP
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.

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.

"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.

Cubans doubt government

Some of the reforms proposed at the Communist Party Congress are already under way, including laying off state workers. Rights to buy and sell real estate or purchase automobiles are yet to come. They're all part of President Castro's effort to bolster state coffers while holding onto the socialist ideals ushered in a half century ago by his aging brother, Fidel, who handed over the presidency in 2008. The 313 reforms lack details, however, so the real scope and impact of change will not be known until the finer print is hammered out when reforms become law.

Many wonder how far the changes will go. "Until it is official, I won't believe it," says Mariela Febles Hernández, an accountant for the state telecommunications agency, who doubts that freedom to travel without any kind of control will happen. "If they allow trips, the vision of Cubans would change diametrically, because we would be able to compare and see what is positive and what is negative about living under this type of government."

Hundreds, and up to thousands, are denied the right to exit each year, according to Human Rights Watch, and illegal "deserters" are not allowed back on the island. Mr. Henken, who regularly organizes panels on Cuba, invited one blogger to New York who was denied permission to leave the island. Ciro Diaz of the punk rock band Porno para Ricardo was also recently denied a visa, according to fan comments on Twitter.

"Cuba's travel restrictions provide the authorities with a powerful tool for controlling what its citizens say about the government," according to the 2009 Human Rights Watch report, calling the regulation a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes the principle that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."

Yoani Sanchez still denied travel

Those who criticize the government have often been refused permission to leave. Perhaps the most outspoken of them all is the blogger Yoani Sanchez. She met with the Monitor in 2008 upon finding out she had won the Ortega y Gasset award – essentially the Pulitzer Prize of Spanish journalism – and was waiting to see if she would be able to fly to Spain to receive it in person.

She was not. Instead, she gave an acceptance speech, published on her website Generation Y, directed at family and friends in Havana.

In a September 2010 blog, Ms. Sanchez posted a photo of her denied exit permit – it had been the eighth such refusal in three years. Since then she has been denied several more times.

"Many people in the world can't travel because they don't have the money, but they always have the hope to one day be able to do it," says Ms. Febles. "Here, no, and that is what hurts."

•The Monitor contributor in Havana could not be named for security reasons.

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