Cuba Lifts Exit Visa Requirements, Raising Possibility of Exodus to Latin America

The change could make a massive difference in the lives of the Cuban people, not to mention U.S.-Cuba relations. Could Miami soon see a brand new influx of Cubans? Maybe.

"For last 50-something years, Cubans have not been allowed to leave the country," says Jose Azel, senior researcher at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "That has been a major irritant to the Cuban people. In that sense it is a significant change. How it comes into practice, however, remains to be seen."
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The changes, which eliminate the onerous and expensive exit permits that have long kept most Cubans from traveling, were announced on the website of Cuban government mouthpiece


. They will go into effect on January 14, 2013.

Some restrictions on travel outside the island will remain. First, Cubans will need a passport -- which is far from guaranteed in a country of endless bureaucracy and arbitrary detentions.

Second, Cubans will need a visa from the country they intend to visit. Despite its longstanding "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allows Cubans who make it to U.S. land to stay, the United States currently issues only 20,000 visas to Cubans every year.

Azel says he doesn't think that's going to change. That means another Mariel-like influx of Cuban immigrants wouldn't happen without a shift in American policy. 

"From the point of view of the United States, these changes don't mean that much," he says.

But mass emigration from Cuba is a distinct possibility, Azel says. Just not to the U.S. -- or not initially at least.

"The pressure is going to be on other host countries in Latin America and elsewhere in the world," he says. "They are now going to have to make decision on how many visas to issue to Cubans. The likelihood is very very high that many of those Cubans who leave the island will not return. Brazil, Costa Rica, Argentina: will they issue visas knowing quite well that those people are going to remain in their country?"

The Granma article on the changes suggests that some restrictions could remain on Cuban intellectuals, as the government seeks to prevent so-called "brain drain."

It also remains to be seen how the U.S. will cope with the thousands of Cubans who could walk across the border after legally traveling to Mexico.

What is clear, Azel says, is that the changes are a win-win for the Cuban government.

"This is something that has irritated Cubans for the past 50 years," he says. "Now this change offers the Cuban government an escape valve for social unrest, it eliminates some mouths to feed that they don't have to worry about, and it gives them the [moral] high ground."

"The Cuban government can now say: 'No, we let them leave. It's up to you whether you let them in or not,'" Azel says.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes. Follow this journalist on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.

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