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How Eased Travel Restrictions for Cubans Affect Relationship With U.S.

January 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez talks to Maria de los Angeles Torres of University of Illinois at Chicago and Julia Sweig from the Council on Foreign Relations about the economic benefits for citizens living both in Cuba and the U.S., and how the new policy could open up a new, more mobile way of life for Cubans.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on all this, I’m joined now by Maria de Los Angeles Torres, director of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and Julia Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Prof. Torres, let me start with you. Why do you think the government in Havana did this?

MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES, University of Illinois at Chicago: I think there are several reasons, Ray.

There’s clearly a lot of pressure from below to make changes. And as the economic crisis and the inability of the government to actually meet the needs of people, there will be symbolic changes in policies that are very unpopular. I think the idea of having to ask permission to travel abroad is something that has deep negative connotations for Cubans since it was at the very beginning of the revolution something that caused divisions of families.

So, symbolically, I think the government is responding to those below. It is also — I think, shows that there is a great deal of struggle in that bureaucracy. Raul’s people on the one hand have been, if you will, a little bit more pragmatic about the kinds of changes that they would like to make.

The Ministry of the Interior has the power of regulating who goes in and out. So the Ministry of the Interior, that has never responded to Raul Castro, is actually losing power in this move.

So, Raul Castro takes care of pressure from below and at the same time puts limits on those parts of the bureaucracies that he hasn’t been able to control.

RAY SUAREZ: Julia Sweig, at whom is this aimed? In a country where most people are too poor to travel abroad, who benefits?

JULIA SWEIG, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, Professor Torres made the point that this has political symbolism, but it has economic benefits in the short, but also the medium and the long term.

Cuban-Americans living in this country, for example, will also start traveling even more so. Cubans coming here will be able to travel, stay, work, and then go back. I think this is an economic benefit to Cubans, to the Cuban population living in both countries. And it has a political benefit to the government to show itself as being responsive to very longstanding demand that an unpopular policy change.

RAY SUAREZ: So, before, when it was very difficult to get off the island, if you did leave, you stayed away for good. Could this be opening up a new kind of life for a lot of Cubans who are mobile, that, instead of leaving once and for all, they will go back and forth, sojourning?

JULIA SWEIG: I think this is a way of addressing what has been discussed as brain drain, which is to acknowledge that in a global economy and where conditions are so difficult in Cuba, with Cuban professionals having skills, if you will, to sell abroad, even not super-duper professionals, but people with some kind of skill set, to be able to come and go and earn money and bring income and not lose their status at home, be able to go back.

What that does is it creates far more fluidity. And it brings Cuba toward a much more, if you will, normal status, in line with other developing countries with a certain middle class and professional class that does want to be able to partake of what the world has to offer it.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that way you see it, Professor?

MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES: I think she’s absolutely right.

I think one of the things that has happened in the last few years is that people have been able to obtain passports from other countries. For instance, if you have a grandmother in Spain or somebody in Venezuela who is a close relative, like the Irish do here in the United States, you obtain that passport, and that has allowed Cubans to be able to travel abroad.

And through these flows of people also come flows of goods and services. And so, for instance, people are bringing in clothes from Spain, from the Dominican Republic, et cetera, so it does help the economy, I would say, at multiple levels.

I think the one thing that we can’t forget is there’s still. And the control is, you need a Cuban passport to leave, as you need a visa, if that country that you’re traveling to requires that. So, it’s not a total opening in a certain sense. It is a certain adjustment that I think carries a symbolic value to it, that it shows that there’s more possibilities.

And like everything in Cuba, this is following in a certain sense what people have already been doing informally. It just, once the envelope is pushed, people will push a little bit more.

RAY SUAREZ: In the United States, Julia Sweig, the Cuban Adjustment Act was drafted to create, to carve out a place in law for people escaping the oppression of a communist nation.

If things change in this relationship and people move back and forth more freely, is the United States going to have to revisit that, that people become more economic migrants, more like people from other countries coming to the United States?

JULIA SWEIG: Well, Cubans visiting the United States have for a couple of decades arguably been more economic than political migrants.

In the 1960s especially, there were waves of political refugees. And that’s where the Cuban Adjustment Act was created to be able to adjust their status here. But as economic migrants now, primarily, the Cuban Adjustment Act creates a special carve-out for Cubans in a time when we are in the middle of perhaps passing a major immigration reform act.

Cuban citizens, I think, are the only in the world that have this kind of special ability. So, I think the United States may well take a look at the options for regularizing this flow back and forth, and putting Cuba more in line with other countries and their flow back and forth for their citizens here.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, in the minute we have left, what’s your forecast for how this new Cuban law might change the way the United States looks at immigrants from Cuba?

MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES: Well, I think that there is a — it is good to regularize, but instead of treating Cubans as poorly as the United States treats many immigrants, hopefully, we can learn that the Cuban Adjustment Act has actually been a good policy that allows people to legalize quickly and incorporate into an economy and too in its political system.

So I would hope that new immigration reforms looks at that as a way of perhaps treating other immigrants.

RAY SUAREZ: So, make other immigrants more like Cubans, rather than Cubans more like other immigrants?

MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES: Absolutely.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Torres, Julia Sweig, good to see you both.

JULIA SWEIG: Thanks for having us.

MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES: Thank you, Ray.