Cuba lifts 50-year-old travel curbs

Updated: 2013-01-16 09:36

(China Daily/Agencies)

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Exit visa, letter of invitation no longer necessary to go abroad

A new law in Cuba has removed a 50-year-old requirement for an exit visa and a letter of invitation to travel abroad, making it one of the most popular reforms enacted so far.

The law also extends the time Cubans can stay abroad, from 11 to 24 months, and the time Cubans living abroad can stay in Cuba, from 30 to 90 days.

Cuba lifts 50-year-old travel curbs

Cubans queue outside a Migration Office to request new passports on Monday in Havana. A law allowing Cubans to travel abroad without special exit visas took effect in the country for the first time in half a century. Yamil Lage / Agence France-Presse

As the Cold War-era restrictions vanished, some called the reform the most far-reaching change President Raul Castro has undertaken since taking over from his brother, Fidel, in 2006.

But it may be difficult for many Cubans to take advantage of the new law. The average monthly wage in Cuba is $20, and an airline ticket to Florida, where many Cubans have family members, costs at least $500. In addition, they still need visas to get into other countries.

Marta Piloto, a 50-year-old retiree, said she was delighted over the prospect of visiting her mother in North Carolina.

"This is the best thing Raul Castro has done. Now you can go wherever you want and come back whenever you want. Before, my relatives had to come here and see me," Piloto said.

The "upgrade in immigration policy" brings Cuba closer to its goal of facilitating "legal, orderly and safe" travel and of "strengthening its relationship with its emigres," the official newspaper Granma said.

Under the reform, the fee for getting a passport was doubled to $100.

The US State Department said it welcomes any reform that allows Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely. But spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was too soon to tell if more people will now get the chance to travel abroad.

Business was as usual on Monday at the US Interests Section in Havana, the de facto US embassy on the island, a diplomatic source said. Hundreds of people showed up to apply for tourist, business or other visas, but they all had made appointments in advance, the source said.

Havana's airport looked no busier than usual, nor did travel agencies or the embassies of Spain, Mexico and Canada - countries that receive many Cuban emigrants.

Cubans have long been separated from relatives living in exile. About one in six Cuban nationals lives abroad - around 1 million Cubans and Cuban-Americans live in Florida.

The reform eliminates red tape for those among the 2 million or so Cubans living abroad who want to visit the island.

The exit visas used to cost up to $200.

The government still retains the authority to restrict travel for reasons of national security or for those deemed "vital", a measure designed to prevent a brain drain.

Countries have the right to act with the "supreme interests of society" in mind by preventing the exodus of "highly qualified professionals, scientists, technicians and athletes, considered key to the socio-economic development of the country," said Lamberto Fraga, Cuba's deputy chief of immigration.

Regardless, "most of the applications will be granted," he said.