Friday, April 18, 2008

In Cuba, speculation on possible travel freedom shockwave

HAVANA (AFP) — Speculation was rife Friday that Cuba could soon scrap unpopular policies requiring citizens to get costly permits to leave and return to the country, ending what effectively amounts to a decades-old travel ban.

As hundreds of would-be travelers lined up at the migration office for regulation exit permits, an official, asked about any policy change, told AFP here there was no news yet on the expected changes.

"Nothing yet ... like the whole country, we are here waiting for changes. But everything is in effect as it always has been," he said.

The potential shift would be the most momentous to date by President Raul Castro, who took office from his ailing brother Fidel in February and has ended several smaller prohibitions.

The Spanish daily El Pais cited an unnamed government official in a report Friday as saying Castro will give a green light soon to migration reform, simplifying exit and entry permits and ending the requirement for people to get permission to leave the country.

In an economically stressed country of more than 11 million people, such a policy change would test Cuba's stability, as the nearby United States grants automatic residency and working rights to all Cubans who reach US soil for fleeing the island's communist regime.

"I hope it happens ... We are waiting. My son has lived in Miami for 14 years and if they take restrictions away it would be very good for us," said Georgina Rodriguez, 73, waiting in the hot sun in the migration queue.

Mandatory permits and a passport add hundreds of dollars in travel costs in a country where most workers make under 20 dollars a month. Many critics see the regulations as just short of an effective travel ban for Cuban nationals.

Tuesday, former diplomat and ex-intelligence official Pedro Riera Escalante submitted to the National Assembly a petition for Castro's government to consider eliminating the permits.

For the petition to be considered as a bill by the assembly, it first has to be signed by 10,000 Cuban citizens. Riera Escalante said he asked the assembly to publicize the effort and help gather the signatures.

The assembly officially received the paperwork, he said. It has 60 days to issue a response.

"This is a problem that is weighing down heavily on Cuba," he said. "There is a general underlying feeling among the people that it is necessary to end these restrictions."

Far from tapering off, what often is described as a "silent exodus" has actually picked up since Raul Castro stepped in as interim leader in 2006, before officially taking over in February, despite his modest reforms.

Raul Castro recently lifted a series of bans on Cubans renting cars and hotel rooms and purchasing goods such as pressure cookers, DVDs, electric bikes and cell phones.

He is also considering agriculture reforms that include opening up the sector to greater foreign investment and closing down inefficient farming cooperatives.

The United States Friday dismissed Castro's efforts as merely "cosmetic" changes in the Americas' only one-party communist regime.

"We would hope that the international community, and I say that in the large terms, recognize that this isn't real change, this isn't fundamental change in the nature of the system," Dan Fisk, the US National Security Council's senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters.

But if Cubans gain travel freedom, the United States could face a new wave of migration that could force it to review its policies.

Under the current policy, US authorities estimate that about 35,000 Cubans will arrive to stay this year in the United States.

Exiles in Miami expressed skepticism that Havana would reform its travel policy and called for the regime to allow them to travel back home.

"It must be a two-way right because there are people who have family there and are also waiting to go without problems," said Jannisset Rivero-Gutierrez, deputy national secretary of the Florida-based Cuban Democratic Directorate.

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