Posted on Wed, Oct. 17, 2012
Will new Cuban migration policy really improve travel between U.S. and Cuba?
By MIMI WHITEFIELD And JUAN O. TAMAYO
While Cubans on the island celebrated a government announcement easing travel restrictions, some Cuban-Americans were skeptical the changes would have much impact on improving travel between the two adversarial nations.
While eliminating the need for a letter of invitation and an exit visa to travel abroad as well as the necessity for reentry permits for Cubans who live outside the island and want to visit, the Cuban government still retained the right to limit travel for a broad swath of Cubans.
“I don’t think it will make that much difference. It won’t change much for me or my family,’’ said Dr. Lisset Oropesa, who arrived in the United States in 2008 after studying in Belgium.
She was working in Brussels with the permission of the Cuban government when she was offered a scholarship to pursue a PhD. But she was told to return home first. Afraid that she might not not be allowed to return to her studies in Belgium, she stayed.
“Now I’m considered a traitor,’’ she said. “What I would like to see is for people like me to be allowed to go back to Cuba to visit.’’
According to a 30-page document published Tuesday in Cuba’s Gaceta Oficial outlining the changes in Cuba’s migration laws that will take effect Jan. 14, Cubans who want to leave or enter the country can do so with a Cuban passport. But there will still be restrictions.
For example, those who have been “declared undesirable or expelled’’ can’t go home nor will those considered hostile to the “political, economic and social principles of the Cuban state’’ be admitted.
Cubans in certain categories such as top sports figures, those considered essential to preserving the workforce in key scientific and technical areas, and military and government officials won’t be able to obtain an “ordinary’’ passport and must request specialized passports from their supervisors. There is also a catch-all category that prohibits Cubans “for other reasons of public interest’’ from obtaining passports.
“We would note that the Cuban government has not lifted the measures it has in place to preserve what it calls the human capital created by the revolution. So the question is going to be whether those other requirements are going to continue to restrict the ability of the Cuban people to take advantage of this change,’’ said Victoria Nuland, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, in a Tuesday briefing..
If the reform were real, it wouldn’t place restrictions on professionals, said Gerardo de la Paz, who was at an air conditioning repair shop in Hialeah on Tuesday when the new policy was announced. “It’s like laughing at the Cuban population. If they say the brains who studied can’t leave, then they’re only going to let the workers, those who don’t have an education and the delinquents leave.’’
South Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said she isn’t impressed by the changes either.
“These so-called reforms are nothing more than Raúl Castro’s desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing, but anyone who knows anything about the communist 53-year old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
The biggest impact will be that it will streamline the process of traveling abroad for Cubans and should make it somewhat cheaper, said Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, which offers charter service from Miami and Tampa to Cuba.
Under the new rules, Cubans will be able to stay 24 months outside the country, instead of the current 11 months, and will be able to request extensions of up to two years without losing their property and other citizenship rights in Cuba. After that, according to the regulations, a Cuban who doesn’t return will be considered to have emigrated.
Each month Cubans prolong their visits now, they have to pay a $150 fee.
Miami Cubans who have been hosting their visiting relatives and paying the monthly fees on their behalf at the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington jokingly refer to the charge as “renting the abuelitas (grandmothers).”
“They’re modernizing the process on the Cuban end,’’ Aral said.
But she doesn’t think making it easier to leave will result in many more Cubans taking charter flights to visit the United States.
“The person still has to have a visa from the United States — that is unless the U.S. government plans to greatly augment the number of visas it gives out,’’ she said.
Already, there are long wait times at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana for Cubans who request visas to visit their families in the United States.
After Oropesa’s 67-year-old mother returned to Cuba after visiting her earlier this year, she immediately applied for a visa for her next trip. “Her visa interview at the U.S. Interests Section hasn’t been scheduled until 2015,’’ said Oropesa.
Still, Vicente Rodríguez, a Hialeah businessman and president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Hialeah, said the announcement could have the effect of raising expectations and the intent might be to try to keep the Cuban populace in line. “It creates hope in the people. When you have hope, you behave well, you don’t cause problems.’’
Many were still digesting the massive Gaceta document Wednesday, but among noteworthy changes it outlined were:
• A legal way for Cubans who live aboard and lost their residency to regain it — such returns have been technically illegal, though officials have turned a blind eye to them. Applicants must submit documents showing how they emigrated and why they want to return, pay all consular fees owed and name someone in Cuba who will sustain them until they can find housing and jobs. They will get a reply within 90 days.
Analysts say this may be an effort to lure back some retirees.
• Twelve-month residency permits for foreigners who own or rent property on the island. They can be extended for an apparently unlimited number of periods. The measure appears designed to facilitate the sale or rental of the several thousand resort condo units that Cuba is building or planning — most around golf courses and yacht clubs.
El Nuevo Herald reporters Melissa Sanchez and Juan Carlos Chávez contributed to this report.