By Isaac Risco (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES — Though Pope Benedict XVI came and went in 2012, the biggest news for Cubans this year was the announcement of long awaited immigration reform. Celebrated initially, qualified by several experts, and criticized by the disenchanted internal opposition, this relaxation of policy with regard to travel poses big questions for the Caribbean island in 2013.
In a year marked in its second half by the start of Colombian peace process negotiations in Havana, Hugo Chavez’s return to the island to deal with his worsening health, and Hurricane Sandy hitting Santiago, the immigration reform policy that takes effect on January 14 is the major topic of the beginning of the year on the island.
Will Cubans begin traveling abroad freely starting in 2013? The reform announced in October formally offers the ability to travel for all those who can afford to and can obtain the necessary visas from other countries. However “the devil is in the details” criticized dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, one of the people who might have difficulty getting in and out of the island.
Although the new immigration law eliminates the requirements of a special exit permit (“la carta blanca”) and a letter of invitation from abroad, the language in the law also points to possible “filters”: it’s estimated that highly qualified professionals will run into difficulties in trying to leave, as will political opponents.
Like the various market reforms in recent years, the law nonetheless is promoting certain economic processes, though it’s still difficult to predict their scope. Just as some Cubans — the minority — have improved their incomes through self-employment, others will now benefit from the ability to travel.
Many will return with money and goods from abroad, and the large exile community in Florida will especially bring in more capital to the island after the elimination of restrictions on some of those who left Cuba illegally.
The law, however, also poses challenges for the government. “Changes necessarily lead to demands for further reforms,” believes Arturo Lopez Levy, a Cuban-American expert at the University of Denver. “Undoubtedly,” many people will ask for more reforms and liberalization, Lopez Levy told dpa.
The United States will also need to address Cuba’s immigration reform. Special US laws continue to grant privileges to Cubans who reach the United States, even when they get there illegally.
Always at the center of interest for possible political events, the world looked at Cuba in late March with the arrival of Benedict XVI. This was the second visit by a Catholic pontiff to the island since John Paul II in 1998.
Given the increasing role of the Catholic Church as the only internal interlocutor of the Castro government, eyes were focused on what Benedict might say in the four public messages he gave while on the island – two of them Masses, one in Santiago de Cuba and the other in Revolution Square in Havana.
Despite the surprise created by the first words by the Pope regarding Latin America (on the plane taking him to Mexico he said Marxist ideology “no longer relates to reality”), what marked his visit most were his especially cordial exchanges with Raul Castro.
Several dissidents then harshly criticized the pontiff for his refusal to meet with them.
In late July, there was the death in an automobile accident of dissident leader Oswaldo Paya, known for a legal initiative he headed a decade ago to reform the political system of Fidel Castro. The opponent’s death in the east of the island shocked the international community.
A young Spanish politician, Angel Carromero, was sentenced in mid-October to four years in prison for involuntary homicide as the driver of the vehicle in which Paya and another opposition figure were killed. Carromero and Swedish national Jens Aron Modig, both conservative members of youth organizations in Europe, had come to the island as tourists to meet with Cuban dissidents.
Aron Modig was able to return to Sweden shortly after the accident. The governments of Madrid and Havana recently announced an agreement whereby Carromero will be allowed to serve his sentence in Spain.
The year ends with the same uncertainties about the government’s economic reforms: Will they be enough to boost the economy?
Three attempts at finding oil in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico failed in 2012. This means the government will have to keep looking for ways to secure its financial survival, especially now that the illness of President Hugo Chavez opens unknowns about the future of Venezuela, which provides vital support to Cuba with oil.
Despite the economic reforms, the government has made it clear that there will be no changes in the political system. The largely unknown and badly divided dissent “movement,” traditionally accused of serving as a spearhead of Washington for destabilizing the island, will continue insisting on more political space.
Added to this, 81-year-old Raul Castro is expected to be confirmed for five more years in power following the February 3 parliamentary elections.