Can Cubans Really Travel Abroad?

Can Cubans Really Travel Abroad? Photo © Isaac Sibecas
Can Cubans Really Travel Abroad? Photo © Isaac Sibecas

In the beginning of this year, the new immigration law have opened up new possibilities of travelling for Cubans, who are now finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel after being kept in complete isolation from the outside world for half a century. The changes in the legislation have been thoroughly explained and widely discussed in the official press and on TV and have become the most topical and crucial issue in the lives of all Cubans.

The official media has been rejoicing over the suspension of the Exit Permit, a means through which the government exercised control over Cubans travelling abroad, yet it has somehow forgotten to look at this rather sensitive issue from another point of view, the one taken by Cuban workers, students and the general Cuban population. The question is, can Cubans really travel abroad?

Regardless of the suspension or the Exit Permit, travelling abroad has remained a privilege that only few Cubans can afford. The economic situation of an average Cuban worker or student makes it impossible for them to pay for the costly administrative procedures that must be followed before leaving the island (e.g. all paperwork at embassies) or save enough money to be able to cover all the expenses associated with travelling abroad.

“I work in my stall selling light snacks up to 24 hours a day and almost everything I earn I give back to the State on taxes. The rest of the money is necessary to ensure a decent life for my family,” says self-employed Carlos Enrique Rodriguez, adding, “If I wanted to go on holiday to any part of the world, I wouldn’t be able to pay for it. I can’t even afford to visit any of the Cuban keys or spend a night in a hotel here on the island.”

Basilio Martinez Obret, a baker by profession, has made an exact calculation: “I earn a monthly salary of 300 pesos in national currency (CUP). To pay for the passport, which costs 100 pesos in convertible currency (CUC), which is 2,500 CUP, I would have to lay aside my whole salary for 9 months. To be able to pay for the medical check-up before the journey, which costs 10,000 CUP, I would have to save up for about three years and four months. So, providing I would not buy anything else, no clothes or food, and save my whole salary, I would have to save for four years to be able to pay only for these two things.”

Although the State has lost control over Cubans via exit permits, the new law imposes a set of measures that still give the State power to continue exercising control over travellers. Although they no longer need a permission to leave the country, a significant part of the population still needs an official approval to travel abroad and the situation of professionals and experts is even worse – they really need to please the regime somehow in order to be granted the approval.

Daniel Chacon, a teacher, believes that the new law doesn’t constitute any “opening” at all. He thinks that the new migration policy is just part of the set of measures introduced by Raul Castro with the sole purpose of recycling the country’s image without losing the government’s privilege to deny the citizens of the country the basic guarantees of a truly democratic country. “Also, the measures have an economic objective. For many years, emigration has been a source of funds for the State, which profited both from the fees for administrative procedures as well as from remittances sent by exiled Cubans to their relatives living on the island. All of this generates profit and doesn’t require any effort. It’s a great business,” says Daniel.

Since the enforcement of the new immigration law, many Cubans have sold their homes, cars and all their possessions, hoping that they would finally be able to undertake the long awaited journey. But suddenly they were faced with things that nobody explained before: travelling to other countries is not as simple as they have been led to believe – these countries have their own immigration laws that must be complied with. “I sold my house in order to try my luck in a different country,” says Laura Guerra Matos, a nurse specializing in intensive care. “But now I have to wait for the Ministry of Health to grant my release, which can take over five years. The Ministry can even refuse to grant it. After that I have to find a country where I would get a work visa, which is something they failed to explain on TV when discussing the new law,” comments Laura.

In fact, the government has incorporated in the law harsh conditions allowing it to control the flight of professionals and experts commonly known as “brain drain”. In this sense, all medical staff are trapped in the prison of the provisions of the new law and it is not expected that the measures will be softened.

Before, people were afraid of leaving the country illegally for fear of never seeing their loved ones again. The new law has eliminated this possibility and after the visit of the sport star from Pinar del Rio, baseball player Jose Ariel Contreras, many other athletes are thinking of fleeing the country to circumvent the costly immigration procedures.

With the new immigration law, the Castro regime bets it all on one card. In the coming years, Cubans, whom the government has prepared to never leave the yard of their home, even if it’s open, will suddenly have a chance to learn from the cultural exchange and enjoy the same opportunities as citizens of an open country. They will finally have the possibility to read all type of information and gain first-hand experience of exercising human rights that people all over the world are prepared to defend tooth and nail. The truth is that among all other government provisions passed by the Government in its effort to save the existing political model, the chance to travel abroad is a brand new factor that could lead to a change in the political situation in the country.

Rolando Lobaina

Rolando Rodriguez Lobaina is a Cuban democracy activist and independent journalist from Guantanamo. He has spend 6 years in Cuban prison. Than he has been arrested many times.