A traveler stands at the check-in lobby at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport last year. On Jan. 14, Cuba scraps a much-reviled, decades-old exit permit requirement, easing most Cubans' exit and return.
For the first time in five decades, Cubans will no longer need an "exit permit" to travel. The change, which takes effect Monday, is part of a broader immigration reform by President Raul Castro making it easier for Cubans to go abroad — and also to return.
But critics say the communist government continues to treat travel as a privilege, not a right, and a useful tool to punish dissent.
A block from the massive U.S. Interests Section in Havana is a place Cubans call "Embassy Park," even though Washington technically doesn't have an embassy here and there isn't much left of the park.
The place is more like a holding pen for the dreams and despair of Cubans trying to get to the United States.
Hundreds arrive here each day, some queuing up for hours under the broiling sun to wait for their names to be called by security guards.
Sergio Giral was waiting in a strip of shade cast by a nearby apartment building.
"These measures that the government is taking are a good step," Giral says. "Our rights have been oppressed for too long, but Cuba is changing."
But even though Cubans will no longer need an exit permit to leave the country after Jan. 14, most countries will still require Cubans to obtain visas to visit. A handful of tiny private businesses have sprouted up to help Cubans fill out those applications.
Lines That Are Getting Longer
In her cramped, crowded basement shop across from the U.S. Interests Section, Idalmis Socarras says she's seen the crowds swell even larger since October, when the Castro government announced the abolition of the exit permit requirement — a costly and time-consuming bureaucratic obstacle that symbolized the Cuban government's hold over its citizens' lives.
"There are a lot more people because of the opening," Socarras says, adding that she thinks it's good that the government is doing this, but it won't make it any easier to get a U.S. visa.
Fidel Castro put the travel restrictions in place in the early 1960s when Cuba's professionals fled his communist revolution en masse. In the decades since, the government continued to insist that the widely resented measures were necessary to protect its socialist system from a brain drain of doctors, engineers and scientists who'd gotten a free education from the state.
But under the new policy, almost any Cuban with a passport will be free to travel or go abroad for work, even doctors. Aurelio Alonso is a sociologist and the deputy editor of the Casa de las Americas journal in Havana.
"There's a series of calculations here that I suppose the government has already made," Alonso says. "If 10,000 professionals go abroad and 500 don't return, that is the price to pay for having a better-qualified workforce. At least even the ones who don't return will be sending money home to their families."
Raul Castro seems to be betting that most Cubans will return, just as the ones who get exit permits generally do now. But restrictions will remain for certain Cubans in strategic occupations like military officers or top scientists, and for athletes like boxers and baseball players. The new law also says any Cuban who is deemed a threat to national security or any other public interest can be denied a passport, language broad enough to include nearly any dissident.
Havana blogger and activist Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo says he has standing invitations from various universities abroad, but he's declaring himself on "strike" until Cuba grants full travel rights to all citizens.
"I'm really tired. I'm not a hero. I'm not making immolation for the Cuban citizen. ... Because when you got hope — 'I can travel, I can make a living, maybe they can pay me for my lecture or for my work' — hope lights your soul, and then the government exploits that, and can somehow blackmail you," he says. "I'm quitting. I don't want to travel really, anymore, unless I am a free citizen."
The U.S. isn't the only country where Cubans will be trying to go. Ecuador has no visa requirement, so any Cuban who can afford a plane ticket can go there. And while foreign embassies in Havana are likely to tighten up visa requirements for some Cubans, they may eagerly welcome physicians and other skilled professionals who know they can earn far more working almost anywhere else.