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Cuba Changes Its Travel Law to Catch Up What’s Happening on the Ground

Ray Suarez talks to Maria de Los Angeles Torres of the University of Illinois at Chicago about how different ideological factions in Cuba see the change and how they might debate the possible economic, cultural and security effects of the new travel policy, plus what to make of Raul Castro's reform promises to his country.

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    For more, I'm joined Maria de Los Angeles Torres, a Cuban-born American who is now a professor of Latin American and Latino studies and director of the center at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Her books include "By Heart/De Memoria: Cuban Women's Journeys In and Out of Exile," and "The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the U.S., and the Promise of a Better Future."

    Professor, Cuba has been a particularly tough place for its citizens to travel from for some time. If you stay out of the country for more than 11 months, you lose your right to residency, you lose your health care. Is this a big change?

    MARIA DE LOS ANGELES TORRES, University of Illinois at Chicago: I think it's a very significant change to the extent that this law, which was actually called the law of definitive abandonment, a very brave world, if you will, kind of description here.

    And the law prevented Cubans from returning if — initially, it was actually 60 days. The 11 months comes much later. But in 1961, if you left for whatever reason and didn't return within 60 days, you lost your home, your property, and your right to be returned to your family.

    So, many families really have been divided by this law. Now, having said this, I think we need to really look at the overall context and perhaps maybe talk about what this law — what this change means and what we could maybe glean in terms of the back — behind the scenes of a Cuban government.


    Well, why now? What do you think prompts this change at this very moment?


    I think, Ray, that there's a couple of readings of this.

    One, it is the change in policy itself shows that there's a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes. One reading could be that the Ministry of the Interior, which is the agency and the institution in charge of intelligence, as well as the control of populations coming in and out, is actually losing ground. They will no longer have this power to be able to give exit visas to at least a broad section of the Cuban population.

    They have historically been at odd s with the military, the military being Raul's, the Ministry of the Interior being more in the Fidel camp. We see this over and over again. There's also, I think, the coincidence of interests between ideologues and pragmatists. The ideologues have always said, let them go. Make it easy for them to go, because it purifies the nation. The pragmatists see this as a move towards putting — aligning Cuba into what really the majority of the world — almost every country doesn't control people from leaving their country.

    So the pragmatists see this. I think, interestingly as well, one of the things that has happened in the last year, I mean, I think the government has changed laws to keep up with what was already going on, on the ground. And one of the things that has been happening is people do travel. They have passports. They have found their grandmothers. They have family members in Spain, Venezuela.

    So there's a lot of people who actually have passports. They still had to get their exit visa from the Cuban government. Now, what are these people doing? They're going abroad and they're bringing back goods. So, in a certain sense, the new — if you will, the new economists are seeing this as a way of opening up trade and bringing — and allowing for goods to flow into the country in ways that perhaps the embargo doesn't allow still.


    As I mentioned earlier, there are going to be exceptions. It's written into the law that you are part of the human capital created by the revolution, it's not going to be so easy to go. I assume that means people who are very well-trained, whose skills are in demand.


    Right, I mean, but that could be almost anybody. So again the devil is always in the detail in these kinds of policies.

    But those of us who read Cuban politics understand that a lot of these changes never happen dramatically. They happen very piecemeal. And behind these piecemeals, what you find really are very shifting kinds of factions and power struggles and distributions of power. So, if we look at it that way, I think it is — it at least raises the question, what's really behind this?


    Raul Castro came to the presidency in 2008 promising change. He held a national party congress to talk about it. Is this part of that trend?


    Well, I think that they're — Raul's people, if you will, the military, have all — a lot of them have been more on the pragmatic end of the spectrum I think in Cuban politics.

    And in many ways, what I think that we have seen is on the one hand the law and changes in policies catching up with what was already going on in the country. It's not so much changes that then allowed people to do these — commerce and, you know, have their beauty parlors and their restaurants. I mean, that was already happening.

    So in a certain sense, they were keeping up with that. On the other hand, Raul has also implemented a fairly draconian policy against human rights activists, as well as some of the people that were perceived to be enemies of his factions. I mean, this summer alone, there were arrests of very key government policy-makers that worked with the Ricardo Alarcon for instance.

    We haven't heard that in the press. People who had been in charge of Cuba's policy towards the Cuban community were also arrested. Foreigners who were in charge of developing all the golf courses and the resorts in the keys, they were also arrested.

    So I think that we have to be careful to not look at this as a big, sweeping change, but rather understand that we will see certain changes that fulfill pragmatic needs of the government, that try to keep up with people, that try to keep discontent down at the same time that the control and security apparatus is still well and aligned.


    Professor Maria de Los Angeles Torres, good to talk to you.


    You too, Ray.

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