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Communist Cuba set to end travel restrictions

As part of a recent move towards what seems to be Raul Castro's attempts at opening up the communist island, travel restrictions that have been in place for 50 years are lifted on Cubans wishing to travel abroad

AFP , Thursday 22 Dec 2011
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Cuban flag flies at half-staff in honor of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Havana, Tuesday (Photo: Reuters)
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President Raul Castro is Friday expected to announce an end to onerous, unpopular travel restrictions that have been in place for almost 50 years and which keep most Cubans from traveling abroad.

The Roman Catholic Church and regime-friendly musicians like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes have joined a chorus of Cubans calling for an end to the rules, including one that penalizes "permanent emigrants."

And observers say Castro is widely expected to make the announcement in an address to the National Assembly.

"Cuba normalizing its relations with Cubans who have left the country is going to have to include eliminating all restrictions," analyst Jesus Arboleya said in a recent interview in the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical.

To travel abroad legally, Cubans have to obtain an expensive exit permit as well as a passport—this in a country where the average monthly salary is about 20 dollars.

The exit permit, which is granted for 30 days, can be renewed 10 times, and can also be denied. Travelers who let their exit permits expire are declared "deserters."

As so-called "permanent emigrants," the assets of these illegal travelers are promptly seized, and they are not welcome to return to home.

Among the changes anticipated in official media: the maximum allowable stay abroad will increase from 11 months to two years, but on a renewable status.

That will spell a de facto end to the "permanent emigrant" status, and should mean that no one's assets will be confiscated any longer, and no one will be less than welcome to return to their homeland.

Cuba will be asking for its emigres to travel home on Cuban passports even if they are nationals of other countries, officials say.

In recent reforms, Raul Castro, 80, has authorized the sale of personal possessions by emigres as a sort of halfway step toward ending confiscation of personal goods.

The president has said reforming travel restrictions aims, among other things, to preserve "human capital created by the Revolution."

It is not just about stemming a "brain drain"—it is also tremendous business for the only communist regime in the Americas, which is politically and economically isolated, and desperate for cash.

The incomes from medical service staff working abroad and paid to the Cuban government now tops $6 billion a year, making Cuban overseas medical staff— not sugar exports or tourism—Cuba's top hard-currency earning industry.

Professionals, especially Cuban-trained doctors, whom the government sends overseas on foreign-currency earning and cooperation contracts will still have to seek permission for every single trip they make.

If doctors make a little over $20 a month in Cuba, they might make a few hundred a month working in Venezuela, Uganda or Haiti; if they leave for the United States, they might make more than $10,000 a month.

Cuban doctors fled Cuba en masse at the beginning of the revolution led by now retired Cuban icon Fidel Castro, 85. Only 3,000 were left in the country, and the health care system collapsed. Now there are more than 76,000 in a country of 11.2 million.

In 2006, the United States said that any Cuban doctor in a third country could get a US entry visa for themselves and their family. In a reprisal Cuba slapped its toughest travel restrictions on its own doctors.

Back in August, the president said migration reform was in the works, promising better ties for the two million Cubans—about one in six Cuban nationals—who live abroad. Although they live in more than 40 countries, 80 percent live in the nearby United States.

Since 2006 Raul Castro's government has ended several unpopular restrictions. Among other things Cubans are now allowed to rent rooms in hotels geared to international tourism, sign cell phone contracts, and buy appliances—a government energy saving measure.

In September, the government authorized Cubans to buy and sell cars, and this month private homes.

Cubans are extremely keen for the government to eliminate its onerous restrictions on travel abroad.

If Havana makes that move, it could be a stunning wake-up call to the United States, which as part of held-over Cold War policy, still grants any Cuban who reaches US soil legal US residency on request. The United States does not have this policy for nationals of any other country.

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