HAVANA TIMES — It’s true that the economic reforms haven’t improved the country’s economy, but it’s also true that Cuban life is much easier than it was a few years ago. Changes in immigration policy have now been added to the greater flexibility that exists in almost all of society.
Life is less complicated when you can build or repair your home, buy cars and houses, stay in tourist hotels, buy a computer, get online in an Internet cafe or university, or start a business.
Colonel Lambert Fraga, the deputy chief of the Immigration Department, wouldn’t give me the percentages when I asked him, but he confirmed that as of now the vast majority of citizens can travel without having to ask permission from their government.
For decades, Cuban minors could only leave the country if their parents emigrated. Now they can travel on a temporary basis provided they have the consent of both parents – just like in the rest of the world.
There will be a percentage of people who will continue to have to ask permission, and the authorities reserve the right to deny the ability to travel for those who are undergoing criminal proceedings or are of age for military service, as well as for reasons related to defense or national security.
However, “Paragraph H” spells out that nor can people travel abroad “when, for other reasons of public interest, this is determined by the authorized authorities.” This legal curiosity fails to clearly establish what these “reasons” are or who are those “authorities.”
Such vagueness gives absolute power to functionaries over citizens. The current teacher shortage could be considered a reason of “public interest,” and the related ministry could feel itself to be the “authorized authority” to prevent a trip by an educator.
Another complex clause is “Paragraph F,” which excludes the right to travel by those without authorization “by virtue of norms established to preserve the skilled workforce for the economic, social, scientific-technological development of the country, as well as for the security and protection of official information.”
The colonel assured us that all of the various public agencies — from the ministries to the Institute of Sports to scientific research centers — would have to submit lists within the next three months of those employees considered vital professionals.
These people will not necessarily be prohibited from leaving, but will need official authorization to travel abroad. The difference, according to Fraga, is that now each of these citizens will be informed in advance of the limitations implied by their responsibilities, job or industry.
The Washington Office on Latin America (a US organization that promotes human rights), described the reform as a significant and positive step, but it notes that “it’s not clear which categories of professionals still need exit visas or how many people will be affected.”
Also, US State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland is concerned because “the Cuban government has not lifted the measures currently in place to preserve what it calls “human capital created by the revolution.”
Apparently Washington wants to see even fewer restrictions in order to improve the functioning of its programs implemented to facilitate the emigration to the US of Cuban doctors working in third countries, with the obvious aim of depriving Cuba of its main source of income.
Nevertheless, Colonel Fraga assured us that the spirit of the new law does not seek to restrict people’s movement, but quite the contrary; he said they had received orders to minimize the number of people who will not benefit from the reform to the lowest possible.
I imagine that some Cubans readers are going to criticize me for trying to dig up flaws in this latest reform, and they might have a point. Despite its limitations, the fact is that never in more than 50 years have the people of the island had greater freedom to travel.
A call from London asked me to get different opinions from ordinary Cubans, but that was impossible; everyone I interviewed in the street considered this to be a positive step, even though it would only benefit a portion of the population.
The vast majority of citizens have recovered a right. So now — like the rest of the Third World — their biggest concerns are getting the resources to travel and getting a visa from a destination country that will allow them to get on the plane.
On the same morning that the changes in immigration policy were announced, people started thinking about this. One retiree, Carina Fonseca, told me about the money needed to travel, and Doris reflected at the door to the Immigration Department about how difficult it was going to be to get a visa.
They’re not wrong. When President Raul Castro announced that there would be changes to immigration, one Western ambassador told me that his country was studying what measures to adopt in Cuba to minimize the number of visas granted.
The difference from other Latin Americans is that the Cubans will always have the opportunity to travel to the US, where the Cuban Adjustment Act automatically grants residency to any Cuban citizen who steps on American soil.
Notwithstanding, the global economic crisis has also initiated a reverse movement. Colonel Fraga informed us that each week the immigration authorities in Cuba are handling the repatriation of an average of 20 emigrants seeking to return.
(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times originally published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.