By Samuel Farber*
HAVANA TIMES — The absence of the right to travel abroad since the sixties has been a major source of discontent among the Cuban people. With the measures recently adopted by his government, Raúl Castro is now trying to lower the intensity of that discontent by making the existing rules to leave and enter the country more flexible, and in the process, achieve other goals.
The new rules are however, a continuation of the old policies that ignore the principle that the right of free movement belongs to the citizenry and is not a gift granted by the state.
The recent measures thankfully eliminate the confiscation of assets belonging to people who permanently leave the country, as well as the requirements to obtain an exit permit and letter of invitation from abroad to be able to leave the island.
As a result of these changes, the passport will become the principal instrument of control. It will only be valid for two years, with extensions of up to a maximum of six years. Current valid passports will have to be actualized, although at no cost.
It is worth noting that Article 23 of the Law-Decree Number 302 of October 16, which legalized the recent changes, explicitly mentions various categories of citizens to whom a passport may be denied.
Among these are Cubans against whom “security measures” are pending, and those for whom “reasons of Defense and National Security will so advise” or when the people requesting the passports lack “the established authorization according to the norms aimed at preserving the labor force qualified for the socio-economic and scientific-technical development of the country, as well as for the security and protection of official information.”
This means that dissidents such as Yoani Sánchez may be denied a passport if the government so wishes, as well as Cuban medical doctors and other highly trained people (scientists, important athletes). In the case of Cuban doctors, it is important to note that they have become commodities for export, besides their role as protectors of the health of the people in the island.
Many countries require that doctors compensate the state for their free education by providing a social service of limited duration. But in the Cuban case, doctors are condemned to a life sentence of service to the state, besides being prevented from traveling abroad, except to Venezuela and other countries with which the Cuban state has contracted out their services.
Just as Article 23 limits the kinds of people that may leave the island, Article 24.1 excludes several kinds of people from entering the island, including those that have been involved in “organizing, stimulating, carrying out or participating in hostile actions against the political, economic, and social foundations of the Cuban state” or “when reasons of Defense and National Security will so advise.”
This means that any Cuban residing abroad who may have publicly criticized the island’s authorities may legally be excluded from entering the country.
The contempt of the Cuban government for the principle that the right to enter and leave the country belongs to the citizenry and not to the State is also evident in the fact that although the measures recently adopted extend, from 12 to 24 months, the amount of time that Cuban citizens may live abroad, they must obtain the government’s permission to legalize their stay abroad. If they do not obtain it, they shall be considered as having emigrated, which implies, for example, the loss of their pensions (Resolution 44 of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security).
One of the most unusual and scandalous aspects of the recent “reform,” is that even those Cubans who have obtained the government’s authorization to reside abroad can, according to the recently approved Article 47, remain in Cuba only for 180 days when they visit the island (90 days for those legally considered as having emigrated).
In contrast with the present situation, it is worth mentioning that the practice that existed during the Republic (1902-1958) only required that the Cubans who resided abroad, whether for a short or long period, maintain valid passports, obtained in any Cuban consulate, so as to be able to return and remain in the country for whatever length of time they wished without losing any of their citizenship rights.
What the government intends to accomplish with this greater flexibility – which does not involve any real reform – is to facilitate the exit from the country of the labor force with little or no skills to help the government achieve its goal of dramatically reducing the number of people employed by the state.
But it is doubtful that the government will be able to achieve this goal because it is precisely these Cubans, who are disproportionately black, who have the least possibility to emigrate due to the lack of resources and family contacts abroad.
With these measures, the government might perhaps succeed in increasing the number and duration of the visits to the island by those who have already emigrated, thereby increasing their material contribution to the very impoverished Cuban economy.
In fact, the amount of the family remittances sent to Cuba have more than doubled in the last eight years, from a billion dollars in 2004, to more than 2 billion dollars last year. With the “reforms” remittances may increase even more.
In any case, no matter how one looks at it, the freedom of movement for all Cubans, inside as well as outside of the island, is one of the most fundamental human rights that remains unfulfilled.
*Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba and has written numerous articles and books about that country. His most recent book is Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment published by Haymarket Books in 2011.