Monday, January 14, 2013

New travel reform takes effect

Cuba’s new travel and migration law went into effect today, the key provision of which is that Cuban citizens will be able to travel abroad just by obtaining a passport.  The long-resented requirements to obtain a travel permit (tarjeta blanca) and letter of invitation are abolished.  Passport restrictions and other details of the law are explained in my recent paper on Cuban and U.S. migration and travel policies.

An article in Granma explained today that the “updating” of Cuban migration law aims to ensure that travel and migration take place in a “legal, orderly, and secure manner.”  The new policy also aims “to strengthen [Cuba’s] relationship with its émigré community,” and was decided “by a sovereign decision” that “does not respond to the pressures or impositions of anyone.”

Cuban authorities say that 195 offices around the country are set up to handle passport applications (Prensa Latina). 

AP reports that there were long lines today at those offices and at travel agencies. 

The big question is who will and will not receive a passport.  The new law (see Article 23) lists categories of persons residing in Cuba who “may not obtain passports” for reasons that include:

·         being subject to a criminal justice proceeding or serving a sentence;
·         being subject to military service;
·         “reasons of defense and national security;”
·         “other public interest reasons;”
·         being deemed unfit for travel because of one’s work in the “economic, social, scientific, or technical development of the country, as well as for security and the protection of official information;”
·         having “obligations with the Cuban state or civil responsibility;”
·         in the case of minors, lack of full legal authorization from both parents.
Given Cuban politics and Cuba’s concern about brain drain, one suspects that dissidents and medical personnel might fit into those categories. 

But AP spoke to a Cuban doctor who said that word had come down from the health minister that doctors were to be treated “like any other citizen” when they apply to travel.   

And blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted today that she went to a passport office, was notified that she will have her passport within 15 days, and she will be able to travel.  Dissident Guillermo Farinas tweeted that he was visited by two officers (Interior ministry, presumably) who told him that “he will be able to leave the country and return.”

The real impact of the law will be known as it is implemented in the months ahead.  But these are good initial signs that it will do away with restrictions on freedom of movement for the vast majority of Cuban citizens, which makes it a substantial human rights improvement.  The Obama Administration’s reaction was right on the money: “If this is implemented in a very open way, and if it means that all Cubans can travel,” Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson told AP, “it would be a very, very positive” change.

Whether it will make a difference in U.S. policies toward Cuban migrants is another matter altogether. 

This Miami Herald article explores the ramifications of Cuba’s new law, and asks whether greater numbers of Cubans will travel to third countries then seek to enter the United States.  “In this hemisphere,” reporter Mimi Whitefield writes, “Haiti, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and a handful of small islands such as St Lucia and Grenada don’t require entry visas for Cubans. Maximum stays range from a low of 28 days in Barbados to as long as 90 days in Ecuador and Haiti.”

Cubans will be permitted to travel for stints up to two years, meaning that those who reach the United States will be able to stay under the “dry-foot” policy, wait a year, apply for legal permanent residency, and receive that status before returning to Cuba.  Café Fuerte reports that a Cuban official recently explained that possibility on a Cuban television program, noting that they could return to Cuba with a U.S. green card without losing Cuban residency.

The status quo in U.S. policy toward Cuban migrants is sustained by the Cuban Americans in Congress, who are Republicans with only two exceptions.  They cling to the old policy, it seems, because it is so central to the concept of el exilio.  But recent Cuban immigrants are anything but exiles, and they split 50-50 between Obama and Romney in last year’s election.  The status quo is costly, providing benefits intended for refugees to Cuban immigrants who are not refugees, and it encourages illegal immigration to the United States, including dangerous sea voyages.  If Congress is going to consider immigration policy this year, the policy toward Cuban migrants is ripe for re-examination.

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