HAVANA – For the first time since the height of the Cold War more than half a century ago, Cuba is giving its people the freedom to leave the country without government permission, scrapping the detested exit visa that kept many from traveling outside the communist nation for even a few days.
The announcement Tuesday came as blockbuster news on the island, where citizens were ecstatic at the prospect of being able to leave for a vacation – or even forever – with only a passport and a visa from the country of their destination.
“Wow, how great!” said Mercedes Delgado, a 73-year-old retiree.
“Citizens’ rights are being restored. … Let’s hope this is a breakthrough to keep returning the rights that they have taken away from us,” Delgado said.
The decree still allows Cuban authorities the ability to deny travel by many Cubans for reasons of defense and “national security,” suggesting that dissidents may continue to face restrictions. So will doctors, scientists, athletes, members of the military and others considered key contributors, as well as those who face criminal charges.
An end to the hated exit visa had been promised since last year by President Raul Castro as part of his five-year reform plan. Analysts called it the latest and biggest step in a gradual relaxation of restrictions on things like opening private small businesses, owning cellphones, staying in tourist hotels, and buying and selling homes and cars.
“It’s an important step forward in human rights, the ability to travel outside of your country without the government’s permission,” said Philip Peters, a longtime Cuba analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute think tank.
“It eliminates a horrendous and offensive bureaucratic obstacle to travel.”
Starting Jan. 14, Cubans will no longer have to apply for the costly “tarjeta blanca,” or “white card,” ending a restriction in place since 1961, the height of the Cold War.
The measure also extends to 24 months the amount of time Cubans can remain abroad, and they can request an extension when that runs out. Currently, Cubans lose residency and their rights to property, social security, free health care and free education after 11 months overseas.
Announced in the wee hours in the Communist newspaper Granma and published into law in the official Gazette, word of the change spread like wildfire Tuesday and was the talk of the streets and office buildings. Islanders greeted the news with a mixture of delight and astonishment.
“This is huge news. Everybody has been waiting for it for a long time,” said Bertina Rodriguez, a 47-year-old office worker. “Because it’s a kind of opening, even if I think they’re doing it so that people can’t say this is a place where they keep people locked up.”
“I heard from my cousin who phoned from the United States,” said Beatriz Suarez, a 35-year-old Havana resident. “She’s all worked up about this.”
Besides the exit visa, the new policy also eliminates the need for a letter of invitation from an institution or person in the destination country.
“These measures are truly substantial and profound,” deputy immigration chief Col. Lamberto Fraga told a morning news conference. “What we are doing is not just cosmetic.”
Still, Fraga said some people remain restricted to combat the brain drain that has already led many of the island’s young and talented to leave for economic reasons.