Last summer, I had the chance to travel throughout the eastern part of Cuba and stay in casa particulares – rooms in Cuban homes rented by locals who obtained a license from the government. This trip gave me the chance to receive a first-hand perception of how Cubans have lived under the Castro regime for the last 60 years and how they view Raúl Castro’s reform efforts over the past four years.
Soon enough I realized that most Cubans have never left the country, while others with greater luck have been able to go abroad through exit permits (issued by the Cuban government) or invitation letters, provided by residents from destination countries. Nonetheless, the Cuban authorities have recently assured that by the 14th of January, Cubans will no longer have to apply for an exit permit to leave the island. Yet is the new immigration law another attempt by the Castros to deceive the world into thinking that Cuba is truly changing? Will this reform significantly alter Cubans’ way of life for good?
For almost 52 years, tight restrictions on immigration have prevented Cuban citizens from travelling outside the country, and those who left illegally have not been able to go back to their beloved home. However, last October 16 the Cuban government released a new immigration law that will abolish government exit permits, and normalize a temporary entry of Cubans who left after 1994. This breakthrough seems to be a further step towards a more politically open order, but also a challenge for the Obama Administration, whose latest policies are seen by Republicans and some Cubans as too flimsy towards the Castros’ regime. It is also noteworthy mentioning that even if this law has been on the cards since August 2004, Cuban officials have carefully chosen this date, as it corresponds with the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis.
But before going into further detail, it is of the utmost importance to understand the impact this new immigration law will have on the Cuban citizenry. To that end, briefly describing how Cubans’ life has been limited for the past five decades would be a good start.
In an isolated country like Cuba, where almost 97 percent of the population doesn’t have internet access, where an internet connection is overwhelmingly expensive ($6 USD per 30 minutes) and where cellphones are still considered a luxury, it seems extremely difficult to stay in touch with the outside world. Yet Cubans who work in the tourist industry and are able to get hold of US dollars have managed to establish some kind of relationship with foreigners, and are thus more likely to go abroad through invitation letters. They also need to go through a rigorous process to get their passports and visa. It gets even more difficult when Cubans, longing to travel, do not reside in Havana because they would have to incur extra expenses to get to the Cuban capital and attend the embassy’s corresponding visa appointment. Despite complying with all the requirements, well-known opposition leaders like the renowned blogger Yoani Sánchez, have been barred from travelling abroad at least 20 times.
Before departing for Cuba, I decided to get in touch through social media with a local who would be able to show me around Havana. Thanks to Couch Surfing –an online platform that offers its users an exchange in hospitality –I had the opportunity to meet David, an outgoing and sassy Cuban originally from Pinar Del Rio, now living in Havana with his wife, and whose dream is to build the first hostel on the island. David told me how he had managed to go by himself to Poland for a couple of months, through an invitation letter from a Pole that he had met on Couch Surfing and had come to Cuba. This was after David had described how he and his wife had undergone a never-ending visa process to travel to London. David’s Cuban friend and her British husband were the ones who signed the invitation letter to get them to come to Britain for three months. Once there, neither sightseeing nor museum visits were on their agenda. Instead the couple’s daily life consisted of exhausting part-time jobs that allowed them to earn enough money to make ends meet, and save enough of it for their future life in Cuba. When the sun went up, they would already be cleaning houses, and when the sun went down, they would be scrubbing filthy pub restrooms.
By the end of their stay they had managed to bring not only British pounds back to the island, but some merchandise considered lavish goods back in Cuba: jeans, boots, handbags, glasses, watches, and interestingly, a pair of ice-buckets. They were both timely and fortunate, since they only had to pay the corresponding taxes for goods brought from abroad in moneda nacional/pesos cubanos ($1USD=24MN), and not in chavito or CUC ($1USD=1CUC). Unfortunately, from July 2012 onwards, the government issued a communiqué stipulating that Cubans wishing to bring “unusual” goods back home would now need to pay the government 25 CUC for every additional kilogram in their luggage.
Not everything is doom and gloom according to the Cuban authorities. As of January 2013, Cubans will be permitted to stay abroad for two years (double the current limit) without being stripped of residency, property and other related rights. In practical terms, David’s Cuban friend, who lives in London, will no longer be compelled to go back to Cuba every 11 months to prevent the authorities from seizing her house in Vedado, Havana. She will also have the right to request an extension to their time abroad upon the expiry of her two-year period. Similarly, this extension might serve as an economic incentive by encouraging Cubans to work abroad on a temporary basis. By collecting taxes from the increase in remittances, the Cuban government will thus be able to raise more US dollars to replace its depleted funds.
However, officials asserted that “Cuba would maintain measures to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of theft of talent applied by the powerful.” Put differently, those Cuban doctors, engineers and scientists with obligations to the Cuban State will need a “special passport”, in order for the government to prevent a brain drain. Given that the migration law also offers a last resort to the government, through which officials are free to deny any Cuban passport “for reasons of public interest as determined by the responsible authorities”, this regulation applies to political dissidents as well. No wonder Yoani Sánchez (please refer to her entry: Reforma migratoria: alegrarse o conformarse) posted on her blog that “until January 14 2013, I will pretend that my name is not on a black list and that there will be an end to the ideological filters that have prevented me from exiting the country.” Likewise, the authorities underlined that “those deemed hostile to the political, economic and social principles of the Cuban State (…) are expelled from returning to Cuba”. In other words, the Cuban government will still prevent exiled dissidents from going back to Cuba. Miami Cubans noted that this bias in the new law deters the return to the island of the most fervent critics of the Castro regime, who left before 1994.
Finally, it appears unlikely that the new immigration law will have a tangible impact on the Cuban population if the passports are neither free nor easily available. LatinNews forecasted that the cost of obtaining a Cuban passport would soar as of next year due to swelling demand. Also, in a country where a good salary amounts to $20 USD, excessive costs to get all the required papers for leaving the country are tremendously discouraging. Although it is true that many Cubans have been anticipating the moment to take out their savings from under the mattresses, or have family members abroad who might be able to provide them with some cash, they will still rely on the government to travel abroad. Even if Cubans were able to afford a passport, their only non-visa destinations are Russia, Belarus, and soon Ecuador. However, Cubans, eager to leave their home country once and for all may instead opt for getting a visa to go to the United States, and consequently take advantage of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. On the American side, the Obama Administration might take matters into its own hands, and void this immigration act that has allowed thousands of Cubans settle down in the land of the free.