In a move expected for over a year, the Cuban government announced today that, starting January 13th, it will lift the travel ban it imposed on its citizens since 1961. This is certainly not an official travel ban. Cubans are allowed to leave the island as long as they get an exit visa and have a letter of invitation from the country they want to visit. But in practice, only few Cubans get the exit visa—and most of them, if not all, are sympathetic to the regime. Well known dissents like Yoani Sánchez are repeatedly denied their exit visas despite having invitation letters from abroad. So in practice, it is a travel ban on the Cuban people.
What lies behind the decision is up for debate. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the economic “reforms” implemented by the regime in recent years aren’t working. The Economist recently reported that the timid changes announced shortly after Raúl Castro came to power “have indeed paused.” Exactly a year ago, I wrote about how the U.S. government registered the first rise in illegal Cuban immigration by sea in 3 years. Given the increasingly tough economic conditions, La Havana might be resorting to the “escape valve” of emigration to ease social discontent.
Or maybe little will change in practice, as has been the case with the much heralded economic reforms. Cubans are required to apply for a passport and, as the official newspaper Granma announced today, the issuance of passports will be denied for several reasons such as:
- Defense and national security reasons.
- Having a security measure pending.
- Having “obligations” with the Cuban government.
- Preserving a “qualified” labor force for the development and security of the country.
- “Public interest” reasons determined by the authorities.
As we can see, the new restrictions to get a passport are so nebulous and discretionary that in practice it’s very likely that the Cuban government will continue to prohibit most of its people from traveling. Thus, it’s better to wait and see if the restrictions are actually lifted and Cubans are allowed to travel abroad more or less freely. If that happens, a new dynamic will enter into play that might accelerate (or delay) the implementation of further political reforms.