Cuba To Lift Travel Restrictions But Not For All

Cuba has announced it's lifting restrictions on travel outside of the country beginning in January. It's the most sweeping overhaul since Castro imposed the restrictions more than half a century ago. But not all Cubans will be treated equally when the new rules take effect.

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After controlling the comings and goings of its citizens for 50 years, Cuba is relaxing its grip. The government announced it would eliminate the exit visa requirements. That announcement has been welcomed by many there, but as Nick Miroff reports from Havana, not all Cubans will be treated equally when the new immigration rules take effect in January.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Cuban broadcasters read the announcement word-for-word on state television, just in case there were some who wouldn't have believed it otherwise.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: Cuba updates its immigration policies, the announcers read, careful as always to avoid the term reform. Still, the move is part of President Raul Castro's broader effort to loosen up the more restrictive elements of the island's socialist system while its aging leaders are still in office.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

MIROFF: Standing outside the sales offices of Cubana Airlines at a busy Havana intersection Tuesday, 28-year-old Yumaida Antunes said she shouted for joy at the news.

YUMAIDA ANTUNES: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: Cuban immigration has never denied her an exit permit, Antunes explained, but the long lines and steep costs were an enormous headache. She says getting a visa from a foreign consulate will still be the biggest obstacle to travel.

The measures will make it easier for Cubans with relatives abroad to visit their families and to keep their property and residency status in Cuba if they live abroad. Now the question is how many Cubans will try to leave. Juan Carlos Gonzalez said his compatriots were deluding themselves if they thought the measure meant they'd be heading off to Disney World.

JUAN CARLOS GONZALEZ: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: What are we supposed to do? Gonzalez said. We don't make enough to live on, let alone to travel. But the exit permit requirement was more than an expensive hassle. It was a symbol for many here of maddening bureaucracy and excessive government control. Sixty-one-year-old Hermes Bosch worked as a geography teacher for more than 30 years, but like many here, he's never left the island.

HERMES BOSCH: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: I know the world through movies and magazines and photographs, Bosch says, but never in real life. I wish.

Travelers like Bosch will be free to go if they can get a visa and buy a plane ticket. But not all Cubans will be treated the same. The exit permit was long justified by the Castro government as a way to prevent brain drain, particularly since the United States offers special enticements to Cuban doctors and gives asylum to any other Cuban who reaches American soil. Many of those professionals will still face restrictions. Elizardo Sanchez, one of the island's most prominent dissidents, says the government is making a tacit recognition of Cubans' individual travel rights, but it's not a full normalization.

ELIZARDO SANCHEZ: (Spanish spoken)

MIROFF: Thousands and thousands of Cubans will still be excluded and discriminated against because of ideological reasons, he says, or because the government alleges they have some national interest at stake because the person has a scientific or technical degree.

The Cuban government says its aim is to facilitate a more flexible relationship between Cuban migrants and their homeland. There's also an economic interest at stake, as greater mobility means more Cubans can earn money abroad and spend it back home. We know the world economy is in bad shape, as one Cuban would-be traveler put it, but almost anywhere must be better than this.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff, in Havana.

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