The (Non) Right of Cubans to Travel

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Havana Airport. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 1 — A while ago, Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon was asked whether Cubans should be entitled the right to travel freely.  This prominent member of the island’s political elite responded —in the finest style of standup comedy— saying that if this right existed, the sky would become so filled with airplanes that some would collide with others, causing great a disaster.  In my opinion, the greater disaster was this official’s response.

This statement was probably no more disastrous than what was later said by the president of the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC), writer Miguel Barnet.  He affirmed that in Cuba there exists complete freedom to travel, citing as an example the fact that he himself has traveled to thirty countries.  As I suspect he hopes to continue traveling, Barnet knows he must walk a thin line, otherwise he risks discrediting himself and seeing the end of his journeys.

Such collusion extends to a good part of the Cuban intellectual camp, including many “progressives” and “reformists” whose critical poses are so well-liked by foreign correspondents here in Havana.

A few weeks ago, a distinguished Cuban intellectual who resides in New York wrote to me disappointed by a well-known and active “verbal reformist” —a comrade of days gone by— who spent several minutes at a forum in Pittsburgh explaining that the only obstacle that his fellow Cubans face in traveling is obtaining a visa from the destination country.

Sometimes this matter is not mentioned so directly in self-rewarding displays of immodesty, as those of Barnet and the old friend; rather, they divert their sights, focusing insistently on the US side without distinguishing anything else around them.  It’s as if an epidemic of political pigmentary retinopathy has broken out on the island.

The Cuban intellectual world reacts in convulsions every time a travel visa to the United States is refused for a personality in Cuba – as happened with Silvio Rodriguez at the beginning of the Obama administration.  Similar responses result with the annual rejection of demands by the Cuban members of the Latin American Studies Association (within which there are many Cubans from the island, both reformists and hardliners); that advocates the US government grant greater freedom for American academics to travel to Cuba.  These are only a couple examples of this hypocritical collusion.

Sunset from Havana's Jose Marti International Airport. Photo: Caridad

The situation in Cuba concerning the freedom to travel is unfortunate.  What I’m describing here is not for Cuban readers (who are all too familiar with this issue), but for those who are unaware of the matter and are forced to accept the information of those who close their eyes to this flagrant civil rights violation, a veritable wedge driven between the Cuban nation made up of both émigrés and those residing on the island.

Above all, travel for Cubans is not a right, but a legal privilege.  It is a condition that can be granted or rescinded.  It is a revocable concession by an unappealable power and is without a defined judicial framework.

In Cuba there are three ways to travel abroad:

1 – as someone holding an exceptional status, with which they can enter and leave almost freely at whatever moment they consider it necessary. This is granted to some people (but not all) who have married foreigners and to prominent members of the political and intellectual elite or their family members.  This would almost be a normal status if it didn’t have to be negotiated and if it weren’t revocable should the person demonstrate some type of political behavior unacceptable to the government.  Very few people are in this stratum.

2 – as someone who is leaving on an official assignment (officials, academics, artists and technicians). These individuals require an official institution to authorize and sponsor their trip, and in each case the person’s passport must be revalidated by Cuban authorities for each trip abroad.  If the person who leaves on one of these trips decides not to return to Cuba —if they “desert”— they then lose all rights of citizenship and cannot return to the country for several years (up to five); nor are their family members allowed to leave the island, which means the family is condemned to several years of separation.  Needless to say, if some academic demonstrates themselves to be particularly critical while on their trip, it’s possible that they will not see the inside of international airport terminal for quite some time.

3 – as someone going on a private trip, of which there are two categories.  The first category, opaque for most earthlings, is the “definitive” exit; meaning the person is emigrating and cannot return to live in Cuba.  With this they lose all of their rights and property on the island.

The second category includes people who plan to travel only temporarily.  They may remain outside the island for up to 11 months, after which time they must return or else they become “definitive migrants.”  In all cases the departure by such individuals must be specifically authorized by the Ministry of the Interior and by the institution where that person last worked.

Other categories of technicians exist —for doctors, for example— who cannot leave through this channel.  Likewise, there is a category for people considered “politically adverse,” for which the obstacles to exit are numerous.

The most dramatic case of denying the right to travel was that of Hilda Molina.  By then an elderly scientist, she had previously broken with the official party machine —to which she had once passionately adhered— and therefore her reunion with all of her family living in Argentina was denied for years, until the Cuban government finally conceded to a petition by Buenos Aires.

What is particularly negative is that people who want to travel temporarily cannot take their children (those below legal age). This is only possible when the person decides to emigrate “definitively.”

Travel for Cubans is not a right, but a legal privilege. Photo: Caridad

In all cases, the departures of these people imply considerable fees that can end up in well excess of US $500, an immense sum for a population with exceedingly depressed wages that average $20 a month.  In short, to leave, each person must be able to pay for a letter of invitation, a passport and an exit permit.

On top of this, once in the destination country, the traveler must make payments to the Cuban embassy in that country a sum that varies each month they remain in that country, which is a highly uncustomary practice. This sum fluctuates between $40 and $150  a month.

Deciding to live abroad

I have not been exhaustive in the preceding account because I prefer to proceed to briefly explain what happens when a person decides to reside in a foreign country (those apart from the very small minority that has been authorized to do so).

As noted, this person loses all of their property and rights in Cuba, which technically makes them an exile.  If at some time they wish to return, they can do so only as a visitor.  For this they must be specifically authorized by the government through a stamp that is placed in their passport and authorizes them to stay for 21 days.

Many Cubans are not authorized, not even in cases of family emergencies.  There exist groups of émigrés —the case of most of the 1994 “balseros” (boat people) — who face special difficulties in obtaining entry permits.  Others are authorized but are turned back once they land on Cuban soil.

They can only travel to the island under a Cuban passport, their current citizenship doesn’t matter; moreover, their citizenship must be renewed every two years at a cost of one hundred dollars.

The logical upshot is that Cuban émigrés live in legal limbo, since the Cuban government does not accept “returnees,” and because of that they are undesirable in many places.  A tragicomic example was that of a Cuban who had to spend 50 days in San Jose’s airport because he could neither enter Costa Rica nor return to Cuba – like what happened to Tom Hanks in his outstanding movie “The Terminal,” though without the prize of Catherine Zeta Jones.  Here, as  Oscar Wilde once said, life imitated art.

There are no laws or clearly written regulations covering these processes; rather, there are arbitrary and discretionary practices that mix starkly fascist reins of political control with mercurial motivations of the worst kind.  In this way, the Cuban government denies a right that it alternately sells to those who can afford it.

Cubans who travel abroad must behave with “political correctness” if they want to continue traveling, if they want see their loved ones again or if they want to one day return to Cuba – to the place where they were born, to feel fully Cuban.  That right has been expropriated by an authoritarian and repressive political elite that has —one by one— denied the values and the human goals of the revolution and socialism.

But we must pay them, and pay them well, so they can continue reproducing their power with the same parasitic style they’ve displayed over the last fifty years.

I’m sure that in the case of Cuban emigrants, we are faced with a situation of the uppercase violation of the rights of people and one which is the source of much human suffering.

Only for this reason it is worth our trouble to look into this matter and to begin to move in that direction.  We must even lend assistance to people like Miguel Barnet and the friend of days gone by, so they are not forced to stoop to such ignoble positions in the face of the brutish legal scaffold that the Cuban government has erected before them.

…simply so Cuba becomes better.

34 thoughts on “The (Non) Right of Cubans to Travel

  • February 4, 2019 at 12:38 pm

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  • April 5, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    My mom is Cuban, yet when she got married to my dad, she was allowed to leave even though my dad was also a Cuban, but he had escaped cuba when he was younger, because his dad had tried to leave also, but then he was put in jail for one week. Then, they waited a while till my dad was around the age of 9, they went to the airport, and bribed the officer so they can leave Cuba. The officer approved of the money and allowed them to leave. My dad went back to Cuba in his 30’s then met my mom. He then got married, and moved to America with my mom, who had to leave everything. Her parents, and sisters, who now live in America.

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