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Cuba to scrap exit visas for travel abroad

Brings measure of change, but control retained

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, trapping most Cubans looking to leave even for just a few days.

Now that bureaucratic barrier is on its way out. The Cuban government announced Tuesday that 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 a significant measure of 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 analysts 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.’’


The Cuban government’s earlier small steps toward a market economy have created an opening of measured proportions. There are now hundreds of thousands of small-business owners on the island of 11 million people, but not nearly in the numbers that the government initially said it needed to cut back on the nation’s bloated public payrolls. Moreover, they are hardly tycoons who are independent of the government’s traditional power hubs of the military and the Communist Party.

Especially in Havana, many Cubans have remained skeptical about Castro’s commitment to change, noting frequently that celebrated new laws — allowing for property sales and entrepreneurship, for example — were later larded with restrictions and taxes that so far have ensured only minority participation.

On Tuesday morning in Havana, skepticism seemed prevalent. Many Cubans seemed to be greeting the end of the exit visa — known as the tarjeta blanca, or white card — with their usual stance of ‘‘We’ll see.’’

There was no line of unusual proportions at the passport office in Havana, and many Cubans correctly noted that they still faced many hurdles to a legal departure.


‘‘It’s all very good,’’ said Laydis, 30, an employee at a bank in Havana. ‘‘But which interesting country is going to give me a visa?’’

Her colleague Maricel, 44, who is eligible for a Spanish passport because her grandparents were from Spain, identified another problem.

‘‘Sure, I can go,’’ she said, ‘‘but where am I going to get the money?’’