Exit visas: Finally a political opening in Cuba?

In addition to the economic reforms seen over the past several years in Cuba, easing foreign travel could portend the kinds of political reforms global actors have been clamoring for.

Desmond Boylan/Reuters
People queue for Spanish visas outside the embassy in Havana, Cuba, October 16.

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, cuba.foreignpolicyblogs.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

Yesterday Cubans awoke to learn in the daily Granma newspaper that after years of discussion and rumors, the carta blanca policy that requires Cubans to receive permission to travel from Cuba for any length of time will be rescinded. As of Jan. 14, when this new policy goes into effect, Cuban citizens will need only a passport and a visa from a destination country in order to travel abroad. The biggest roadblock to such travel has long been the required exit permit: Permission is hard to come by and often arbitrarily denied, and the cost of the permit itself is largely out of reach.

The importance of this government announcement cannot be exaggerated. It is the most significant migration reform in half a century, and the language in the announcement left the door open for further changes in the future: “In due course, other measures related to the migratory issue will be adopted that will certainly help in the consolidation of the efforts being made by the Revolution towards the full normalization of Cuba’s relations with its emigrants.”

There are still open questions. How will this impact Cubans currently living abroad? Will the specifications regarding “preserving the human capital created by the Revolution from the theft of talents practiced by the powerful nations” prevent most (some? many?) Cubans from taking advantage of this new freedom? And how will this new policy actually manifest itself in practice?

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Skeptics range from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the house foreign affairs committee and a regularly vehement pro-embargo voice, to Elizardo Sanchez, a Cuban dissident living on the island who is head of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. And if this is a guise, then their critiques are valid.

However, the reasons for a Castro government to create a smoke screen on this issue are few. The uptick in public and international regard for Cuba’s respect of freedoms and human rights will be quite brief if results are not realized after Jan. 14. The state has set a clear date for implementation, and has thus invited international observation and scrutiny on the follow-through. The excitement on the island, as well, could quickly give way to increased discontent if this very public promise does not now bear fruit.

The Cuban government does not need a disillusioned populace next year, nor does it particularly need a cautiously optimistic international community at the moment, so why try to “fool the world,” as Ms. Ros-Lehtinen put it? Washington will not be adjusting policies in the very short term before we see what this looks like in practice (and certainly not in advance of the presidential election), and many other nations trade and invest in Cuba without seeing these kinds of reform. What Cuba does need is a generally improved, more efficient, and more friendly economic and political system that is more widely supported among its populace, its émigrés, and its partners abroad. This kind of reform has long been red-flagged as one key part in a series of policy changes on the island.

What this means, then, is that in addition to the economic reforms we’ve seen over the past several years, we are finally seeing the kind of political reforms related to individual freedoms that global actors have been clamoring for, and upon which the Obama administration has made any changes in Cuba policy contingent. We cannot expect a flood of other reforms in the immediate term, but we can acknowledge this step and encourage it.

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– Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read her blog, and follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.

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