Cuba lifts a much-reviled exit visa requirement
Published: October 16, 2012 12:49PM
Updated: October 16, 2012 01:08PM

Mexico City • In a country of limits, it is the restriction that many Cubans hate the most: the exit visa that the government requires for travel abroad but rarely grants.

Now that bureaucratic barrier is on its way out. The Cuban government announced Tuesday it would terminate the exit visa requirement as of Jan. 13, letting many Cubans depart for vacations, or forever, with only a passport and a visa from the country where they plan to go.

The new policy — promised by President Raul Castro last year, and finally announced in the Communist Party newspaper — represents the latest significant step by the Cuban government to answer demands for change from Cubans, while also maintaining significant control.

Cuba’s doctors, scientists, military officers and other professionals have long faced tight restrictions on travel, and the new policy includes a major caveat allowing the government to limit departures to “preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful.”

But it also gives Cubans leeway to stay abroad longer, letting them remain outside the country for two years before losing their rights to property, citizenship and benefits like health care, an increase from 11 months under the current policy.

Analysts say the government is encouraging more Cubans to travel so that they can go earn money elsewhere and return, injecting capital into the island’s moribund economy. Whether that creates a temporary — or permanent — mass exodus, Cubans and experts say, will be determined by how many people have the means and passports to leave, and which countries welcome them.

“The decision to lift the exit visa is a significant one for several reasons, although like most of the new reforms, it depends a great deal on how it is implemented,” said Robert Pastor, professor of International Relations at American University. “Nonetheless, by removing a state barrier to leave, this reform could lead to a large outflow — many of whom will eventually want to come to the United States — or it could begin to allow a circular flow of people that could enhance the economic opening of the island.”

Many Cubans have remained skeptical about Castro’s commitment to change, noting frequently that celebrated new laws were later larded with restrictions and taxes.

U.S. officials said they were still studying the new policy to determine its potential impact.