Isaac Risco (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES — One of the most-awaited legislative changes took place in Cuba in 2013 following a historic reform implemented by Raul Castro’s government, which eliminated the exit permit Cuban citizens needed to travel for decades.
The measure adds to numerous reforms being implemented by the Castro administration in recent years, the last of which came this Thursday, when the government announced it would make it easier to purchase a new or used vehicle from the State.
The migratory reform that came into effect on January 14, however, did not prompt the massive exodus some had feared abroad. Rather, more than 220,000 people benefited from the lifting of this travel restriction that had applied to most of the population.
“Cubans aren’t fleeing the country, they are traveling,” Deputy Chief for Cuba’s Immigration and Foreign Affairs Head Office Lamberto Fraga underscored in October, drawing a balance of the situation.
Travelers included several opponents of Raul Castro’s government who, for the most part, faced no obstacles to exit or enter the country.
“This is the trip that is going to change my life in many ways,” said the renowned, dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez on returning to Havana in May this year, following a much publicized, multi-national three-month tour. Her trips abroad have since become a kind of silent routine for Sanchez.
Members of the opposition such as the leader of Cuba’s Ladies in White, Berta Soler, and psychologist Guillermo Fariñas were also able to travel abroad. One of their destinations was Miami, the capital of anti-Castro exiles.
Only medical doctors, the military and high-ranking government officials face a number of travel restrictions.
Upon announcing the reform in October of 2012, the government reserved the right to continue restricting travel by individuals who are considered of “vital” importance to the country, in order to prevent a “brain-drain” it holds the United States most responsible for.
Around 35 percent more Cubans had traveled abroad by the end of October this year in comparison to 2012. The total number is over 226,000 travelers. According to official statistics, 57 percent of travelers returned to the country during that period.
One of the factors which have prevented a massive exodus from Cuba, the only Communist Party regime in the Western Hemisphere, is the restrictions established by destination countries. Like the majority of Latin Americans, Cubans require a visa to travel to most countries around the world.
The new migratory legislation is one of the most significant changes brought about by Raul Castro’s government during the market reform process of recent years, which, among other things, has authorized different forms of private initiative. As a result of these reforms, Cuba currently has more than 442,000 “self-employed.”
The great reform planned for 2014 is the elimination of the two-currency monetary system which has existed since the 1990s. In October this year, the Cuban government declared it would announce a “timeline” detailing the steps to be taken to put an end to this system, today considered a burden on the country’s economy.
Two currencies have existed in Cuba since 1994: the Cuban Peso (CUP), the currency all State salaries are paid in, and the Convertible Peso (CUC), which maintains a parity with the US dollar and has 24 times the purchasing power the CUP has.
The two-currency system divides the population into two parallel worlds separated by a growing social gap. While the majority of Cubans earn salaries or receive pensions in CUP, those who work in the tourism industry or the emerging private sector or receive remittances from abroad have access to CUCs.
“The two-currency system constitutes one of the most significant obstacles in the way of the nation’s progress,” Raul Castro acknowledged in July this year.
The existence of two currencies prompted the appearance of “two work ethics”, University of Denver Cuban-American scholar Arturo Lopez Levy explained.
Lopez Levy told DPA that, while the CUC economy is linked to material work incentives, the CUP economy is “associated to the sacrifice of teachers, health professionals and others, as well as to over-employment, low purchasing power and laziness.”
Raul Castro has shown optimism over the ability of the reform process to bring about profound changes “in terms of salaries and pensions, prices and tariffs, subsidies and taxes.”
Analysts believe the monetary measure will require a transition period of up to 24 months to become effective. It is speculated the reform will consist in the valuation of the CUP and the gradual disappearance of the CUC. “By necessity, the process cannot take longer than a few years,” Lopez-Levy explained.
The scholar is hesitant to express optimism over the reform. “The elimination of the two-currency system is not the cure-all that will put an end to Cuba’s economic problems,” he pointed out.