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For the first time in five decades, Cubans are about to be able to travel without having to get an exit permit. The change is part of broader immigration reform that are making it easier for Cubans to go abroad and also, importantly, to return.

Nick Miroff reports from Havana.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: One block from the massive U.S. Consulate in Havana is a place Cubans call Embassy Park, even though Washington technically doesn't have an embassy here and there isn't much left of the park.

The place is more like a holding pen for the dreams and despair of Cubans trying to get to the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Hundreds arrive here each day, some queuing up for hours under the broiling sun to wait for their names to be called by security guards.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: Sergio Giral was waiting in a strip of shade cast by a nearby apartment building.

SERGIO GIRAL: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: These measures that the government is taking are a good step, Giral says. Our rights have been oppressed for too long, he says, but Cuba is changing.

A handful of tiny, private businesses have sprouted up here to help Cubans fill out visa applications. In her cramped, crowded basement shop across from the consulate, Idalmis Socarras says she's seen the crowds swell since the Castro government announced in October, that Cubans would no longer need an exit permit to leave the country after January 14th.

IDALMIS SOCRRAS: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: There are a lot more people because of the opening, Socarras says. It's good that our government is doing this, she adds, but it won't make it any easier to get a U.S. visa.

Fidel Castro put the travel restrictions in place in the early 1960s, when Cuba's professionals fled his communist revolution en mass. In the decades since, the government continued to insist the widely-resented measures were necessary to protect its socialist system from a brain drain of doctors, engineers and scientists - who'd gotten a free education from the state. But under the new policy, almost any Cuban with a passport will be free to travel or go abroad for work, even doctors.

Aurelio Alonso is a sociologist and the deputy editor of the Casa de las Americas journal in Havana.

AURELIO ALONSO: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: There's a series of calculations here that I suppose the government has already made, Alonso says. If 10,000 professionals travel abroad and 500 don't return, that is the price to pay for having a better-qualified workforce. At least even the ones who don't return will be sending money home to their families, Alonso says.

Raul Castro seems to be betting that most Cubans will return, just as the ones who get exit permits generally do now. But restrictions will remain for certain Cubans in strategic occupations, like military officers or top scientists. The new law also says that any Cuban who's a deemed a threat to national security or any other public interest, can be denied a passport, language broad enough to include nearly any dissident.

Havana blogger and activist Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo says he has standing invitations from various universities abroad. But he's declaring himself on strike until Cuba grants full travel rights to all citizens.

ORLANDO LUIS PARDO LAZO: I'm really tired. I am not a hero. I am not making immolation for the Cuban citizen. I'm tired. Because when you got hope - I can travel, I can make a living, maybe they can pay me for my lecture or for my work - hope lights your soul and then the government exploits that. And can somehow - it's like a blackmailing, you know. No. No. No, I'm quitting. I don't want to travel, really, anymore, unless I am a free citizen.

MIROFF: The U.S. isn't the only country where Cubans will be trying to go. Ecuador has no visa requirement, so any Cuban who can afford a plane ticket can go there. And while foreign embassies in Havana are likely to tighten up visa requirements for some Cubans, they may eagerly welcome physicians and other skilled professionals, who know they can earn far more working almost anywhere else.

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

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