Local reaction to easing of Cuba travel rules mixed
TAMPA - Francisca Silva lives in Tampa but she's hoping she'll be the beneficiary of the news Tuesday that the Cuban government soon won't require its citizens to apply for an exit visa to travel abroad. She thinks the less restrictive regulation will allow her two brothers and four sisters who still live in Havana to visit her in Tampa. "Under this plan the families can visit and see each other more often," said Silva, 64. "It seems good. It seems marvelous. It's great for the families to stay united." Beginning Jan. 14, Cuban citizens will only have to show their passport and a visa from the country to which they will be traveling.The move eliminates a restriction in place since 1961 requiring Cubans to get approval from their government for permission to leave the country. Cubans also will not have to present a letter of invitation from a foreign institution or person in the country they plan to visit. The measure extends to 24 months the amount of time Cubans can remain abroad, and they can request an extension when that runs out. Currently, Cubans lose residency and other rights, including social security and free health care and education, after 11 months. Tampa lawyer Pedro Velez said the policy is good news for Cubans living both in and out of the island nation. "This is a great day for the Cuban people," said Velez, 50, who was born in Cuba. "They no longer have to defect out of the country. They can stay on the island most of them love dearly and visit abroad." The policy is a step toward bringing real change to the communist-run island, Velez said. "Economically, it makes sense for (Cuba) to relax its policies," he said. "The long term intention (for Cuba) is to have the embargo lifted. When you allow them to travel freely, you have a lot more to bargain with when trying to establish normal diplomatic relations." Critics of the Cuban government, though, say the real intent of eliminating the exit visa requirement is to get the elderly, malcontents and those who are an economic drain on Cuban society out of the country and onto U.S. soil. "We are going to get stuck," said Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer who was born in Cuba and has been a longtime activist representing Cuban exiles. "This is to dump a hazardous load on the state of Florida, relieve tension in Cuba by providing that alternative and further cause an affront to the United States at every level," Fernandez said. Fernandez said Gov. Rick Scott and the president in office in 2013 will have to respond to Cuba's updated travel plan. "If I was the governor, I'd be concerned," he said. "I don't think we're in any position to welcome 250,000 Cuban refugees." The policy doesn't allow all Cuban citizens to freely travel abroad, which critics say raises a major concern. People cannot obtain a passport or travel abroad without permission if they face criminal charges, if the trip affects national security or if their departure would affect efforts to keep qualified labor in the country. Doctors, scientists, members of the military and others considered valuable parts of society currently face travel restrictions designed to combat a "brain drain." Olga Pina, a local lawyer of Cuban descent, said that while the news sounds encouraging, it might not actually represent much of a change. "Right now you have an unwritten policy that they are not going to grant exit visas to people who can contribute to the Cuban economy," Pina said. "If you're older, you can leave more readily than in your prime working years." Enrique St. John, a former political prisoner, is suspicious of the government's intentions. "There is always an ulterior motive when Cuba does something like this," he said. "If you are allowing residents the freedom to travel, why not allow them the freedom to speak their minds?" He questions whether the policy will apply to those who have openly opposed the Cuban government. "It's interesting how they are allowing the Cubans they want to leave the country," said St. John, 72, who came to the United States in 1979 and served 11 years in a Cuban prison. "But will the government allow dissidents like Yoani Sanchez to leave? Will they allow everyone that leaves to return?" Sanchez, an author and internationally known anti-Castro blogger, has tried unsuccessfully to leave the island for travel. She tweeted in Spanish about the policy change: "Every citizen born on this island should have the right to come and go as they please." "I was denied the permit to travel on 20 occasions during five years," she wrote in another tweet. Sanchez is concerned that officials might now control travel abroad by denying passports. "I have the suitcase ready to travel. … Let's see if I get a flight for Jan. 14, 2013, to try out the new law," Sanchez said. Al Fox, founder and president for the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, said the change means the Cuban government no longer will be able to charge the $150 fee for each exit visa applicant. "That is a hell of a concession," Fox said. "It's a dramatic proposal of how badly they want to have friendly relations with the United States." Fox doesn't see Cubans exiting the country en masse. The people who want to travel abroad still have to get a visa from the country they are visiting. If the U.S. Interests Section in Havana doesn't grant a visa, they can't travel to the United States, he said. "You think the United States is going to allow 5,000 Cubans to come to the United States?" Fox said. "I think the answer to that is no. "I don't see how these numbers are going to change if we're the ones who control the policy," Fox said. The new travel plan will show it's not just the Cuban government that's stopping its citizens from traveling abroad, Fox said. It will show the United States also doesn't extend visas for Cuban citizens to visit, he said. "This is going to expose the United States' hypocrisy," Fox said.