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Cuba Opens Travel Abroad for Most Citizens, Eliminating Exit Visa Requirement

January 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: An historic moment in Cuba today, as the country opens up to allow many of its citizens to travel abroad.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Cubans lined up at travel agencies and passport offices in Havana this morning, wasting no time in taking advantage of a new law easing restrictions on travel abroad.

MARTA DIAZ,Cuba (through translator): I think it’s beneficial for me and for everyone. You can go wherever you want and come back to your country and not lose your Cuban nationality.

RAY SUAREZ: Today marks the end of more than a half-century of an extremely unpopular Cuban government policy put in place shortly after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 to stem a post-revolution exodus.

For decades, Cubans who wanted to travel overseas needed exit permits and letters of invitation from destination countries, leading hundreds of thousands to flee the island nation on boats and rafts for nearby Miami and the Florida Keys.

Once overseas, even legally, Cubans faced the prospect of losing their citizenship and property if they remained outside the country too long.

MARIA DEL PILAR RODRIGUEZ, Cuba (through translator): There has been a great deal of separation of families, something that is very tragic.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, under the new law, Cubans will need only a passport and national I.D. card to leave.

YONLI RAMOS,Cuba (through translator): I think it’s great because they have changed a lot of things and given us the freedom for all Cubans to travel.

RAY SUAREZ: For the first time, they will be able to bring their young children along.

YAMILA MARTINEZ, Cuba (through translator): The situation for children is the best situation possible, because now I can take the child, but the child doesn’t have to leave for good. He will keep his Cuban citizenship.

RAY SUAREZ: Those traveling abroad will be allowed to stay up to two years, up from 11 months, without risking their citizenship. And while the Cuban government’s long been concerned about doctors emigrating to other nations, last week, they were told they’d be allowed to travel too. There are signs even Cuban dissidents will be eligible.

Yet, for all the praise, some see a cynical motive in the reform, to purge the country of its opposition voices, including doctor and outspoken government critic Oscar Elias Biscet.

Dr. OSCAR ELIAS BISCET, Cuban dissident (through translator): It is a decree that doesn’t give the Cuban people freedom to travel, but rather promotes an exodus, in order to reduce the tensions that exist in this country because of the profound economic crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today the administration is reserving judgment until the new policy has been implemented.

VICTORIA NULAND, State Department: It is still one of the most repressive places in terms of its human rights record, in terms of its restrictions on its citizens, in terms of speech, assembly, political rights, et cetera. But we welcome any liberalization. And we hope that this will turn out to be one such.

RAY SUAREZ: For now, there’s no change to a U.S. law, the Cuba Adjustment Act, that allows Cubans who arrive on American soil to remain.