News Column

What's Behind Cuba's New Travel Policy?

Jan 18, 2013

Mimi Whitefield

As Cubans embraced their first week as potential global travelers, the rest of the world pondered Cuba's motivation in enacting one of its most sweeping reforms to date and how it might affect travel throughout the region.

And one ally responded swiftly to the prospect of an increase in Cuban visitors after the change took effect Monday.

The day after the reform allowing Cubans to travel without obtaining an exit visa or a mandatory invitation letter from a foreign host, Ecuador stiffened its own policy on visits by Cubans. Previously, Cubans were allowed to visit for up to 90 days with no entry requirements. Now, Ecuador wants Cubans to provide a letter of invitation from an Ecuadorean host, or from an immigrant residing in Ecuador, that promises to pay for the visitor's expenses, including any medical costs.

The policy, which takes effect Monday, is aimed at creating an "orderly" flow of visitors and preventing human trafficking, Ecuador said.

"In some ways, Cuba is passing the buck to the receiving countries. This is a smart step politically speaking," said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba expert and economics professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.

"If Cuba implements this new policy broadly, it will reduce the pressure for another Mariel,'' he said. More than 125,000 Cubans came to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

Because Cubans will still need an entry visa to visit the United States, analysts say trips to countries that don't require visas may increase and, in turn, back-door trips through those countries, with an ultimate goal of reaching the United States, also will increase.

"I think the Cubans are trying to preemptively address the pent-up demand for travel overseas as well as create a mechanism so they can continue to capture the benefits from those who travel aboard," said Jonathan Benjamin Alvarado, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "I'm not sure they can pull this off. It's a pretty critical moment for the regime.''

Since Cuban Americans have been allowed to freely travel to Cuba and send unlimited remittances to the island, they have become an important source of funds and supplies for Cubans to launch their own businesses. Self-employment is now allowed in Cuba in a reform designed to move hundreds of thousands of people off state payrolls.

Cuba's airports have bulged with supplies carried by friends and relatives to help the self-employment effort, although an increase in import duties last summer has cut into the amount of cargo that Cuba charter companies are currently flying to the island.

The strategy, said Julia Sweig, director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is to allow Cubans to make money independently of the state and invest in their country.

"The travel reform and the economic reforms are all of a piece,'' she said. "Allowing Cuban citizens to partake of the global economy is the long-term strategy.''

Under the reform, Cubans are also permitted to travel abroad for up to two years without losing their rights as Cuban citizens, which could set up a cyclical migration where they work abroad and then return to Cuba. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive in the United States can apply for asylum and are eligible for a green card after a year.

"If such cyclical travel increases, there are opportunities and dangers for both countries -- opportunity in the sense that those going back may have the resources to start businesses in Cuba; danger in the sense that the returnees could be sources of dissatisfaction and change,'' said Robert Pastor, an international relations professor at American University and national security advisor for Latin America during the Carter administration.

Looking back to events such as the Camarioca boatlift in 1965, the Mariel boatlift and the rafter exodus in 1994 when tens of thousands of Cubans fled the island, Pastor said, "immigration has always been not only a way to release pressure in Cuba but also an instrument pointed at the United States to put this country in a defensive position.''

Some analysts say Cuba may hope its new travel stance will pressure the United States to liberalize its own travel policy toward the island as well as take another look at the Cuban Adjustment Act. In addition to Cuban Americans, the United States permits only limited categories of other Americans to visit Cuba, such as those on people-to-people exchanges or for specific purposes such as humanitarian missions or academic trips. Travel for tourism is prohibited.

The Cuban Adjustment Act may well come up during the expected debate on immigration reform in the United States, said Sweig. "There is a good amount of resentment among other Hispanics over the Cuban migrant preference,'' she said. "If we can create a safe, legal, regular way for undocumented people to stay here, the Cuban carve-out may stand out in a more glaring way.''

Cuba's new travel policy comes at a time when hundreds of thousands of Cubans have traveled to the island in recent years and attitudes toward travel are shifting.

For some Cuban exiles in South Florida, the memories are too bitter and too many years have passed for them to personally consider visiting Cuba, but they say that doesn't mean others shouldn't go.

"For those of us who arrived here in the early days of exile and are now entering into the third age, Cuba will always be an inconsolable memory,'' said Felipe Fernandez, a 78-year-old attorney in Miami. "However, I understand that those who were born and grew under socialism may like to go back and forth; in a very real sense, that is their country."

Rather than limiting travel, Fernandez thinks the U.S. should lift its restrictions: "At this point, I believe that anyone who wants to visit Cuba should be entitled to go. Let's just hope that Americans who visit Cuba are alert enough to perceive that underneath the prepared welcome mat for visitors lies one of the most repressive and totalitarian governments on earth.''

But other longtime exiles say they have mixed feelings about freer travel for all Americans.

"On the one hand, I believe strongly in the freedom that our system of government affords us and as such I'm against any travel restrictions for our citizens,'' said Jose Gomez, 65, a Miami retiree who left Cuba when he was 13. "However, I personally object to providing this dictatorship with the currency it seeks from American tourists.''



Source: (c)2013 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.