Havana scraps exit visas, but most Cubans won't be going abroad

The new law will cut down on bureaucratic barriers for Cubans who want to leave the country, but for many the benefits will likely be more psychological than practical.

Franklin Reyes/AP
In this file photo, a woman holds papers after filling out a passport application outside an immigration office in Havana earlier this month.

Havana’s Old Town is a colorful though faded grid of dilapidated houses punctuated by chess games and 1950s-era American cars. Neighbors chat from their doorways, like Estrella, who sits on a knee-high box in front of her home.

“I’d love to travel but it’s so expensive,” Estrella says, declining to give her surname for fear of reprisals from the government.

Exit visas are one of the first hurdles Cubans have had to face when it comes to travel. But a new law set to come into force today scraps the requirement for the costly “white card,” allowing Cubans to travel freely with just a passport.

“Cubans, even if they’ve never applied for an exit visa, have always felt they had to ask permission to leave, so it’s a big psychological change,” says Emily Morris, fellow at the Institute of the Americas at University College London. “It makes a difference to how they see their relationship with the state. It is no longer controlling them.”

While doing away with one of the country’s most despised pieces of legislation is symbolically a huge step, in practice there may be little effect on people like Estrella.

“In reality, it’s not a change for me,” she says. The cost of any flight and even the passport itself are prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of Cubans. And Estrella earns just $13.50 a month working for the state selling food. That’s well below Cuba’s average salary of $18 a month. “It’d never be possible to go anywhere,” says Estrella.

Revolutionary roots

The strict exit visa laws were enacted in 1961, two years after former President Fidel Castro’s revolution, in order to prevent a mass exodus from the island.

Now, as the government begins to relax its hard-line policies and Fidel’s younger brother, President Raúl Castro, enacts economic reforms, one more hurdle to Cubans’ freedom looks to be falling. Recent economic reforms have allowed small private businesses such as restaurants and guesthouses to grow, although they are constrained by heavy taxation and regulation.

With the new law, islanders have to apply only for a passport and the relevant entry visa for their destination. They will be allowed to remain out of the country for as many as two years before they lose certain rights in Cuba, such as health care and their property.

'More flexibility'

Estrella isn’t the only Cuban who feels that the new law will have a minimal impact on her life. Yoani Sánchez is an activist and blogger who has been unable to travel outside Cuba in order to collect any awards for her activist work on the island. Ms. Sánchez says that despite the lifting of the exit visas, travel outside the country won’t be a given.

“There will be more flexibility and a reduction in the bureaucracy and in cost, but it doesn’t give people directly the right to enter and exit this country,” Sánchez says.

The activist plans to line up outside one of the country’s 195 operational passport offices today. “I’ll enjoy the illusion that I can leave,” she says.

Sánchez worries about a “national security” clause, which could give the government the opportunity to prohibit travel to dissidents or anyone it deems a threat to the state. There are more obvious caveats in the wording of the law that say that those of value to the revolution – professionals such as scientists and engineers – will have a much harder time obtaining the necessary permissions to leave. This is in order to maintain the “human capital created by the Revolution.”

Doing away with the travel visa "is significant, at least in theory,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “The question is whether there will be new obstacles to leaving, and, if so, will they be applied to high-profile cases?”

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