Brave new world of Cuba travel begins Monday


The new policy, which goes into effect Monday, eliminates the need for an exit visa and allows many Cubans once barred from returning to the island to visit

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Major provisions of Cuba’s New Migration Policy

•  Allows Cubans who obtain their passports to travel as long as they have an entry visa from the country they intend to visit and a ticket; eliminates the need for an exit visa and letter of invitation.

•  Increases the time Cubans may stay outside the country from 11 months to 24 months without losing their status as residents of Cuba. Previously Cubans were given permission to visit for only 30 days after which they had to pay a fee for each additional month’s extension up to 11 months.

•  Allows those younger than 18 years to leave the country with the notarized authorization of their parents or legal representatives.

•  Allows Cubans who have emigrated to visit the island for a period of up to 90 days — 60 more than currently allowed.

•  Allows those who were previously barred from returning, such as those who left for humanitarian reasons, rafters, and athletes and professionals who left their teams or posts while on official trips abroad, to return. Those who escaped through the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo will still be banned for defense and national security reasons.

•  Allows those who left Cuba illegally after the 1994 migration accord with the United States to return as long as eight years have passed since their departures. An exception to the eight-year requirement will be made for Cubans who emigrated illegally when they were under 16 years of age.

•  Allows Cuban doctors, whose travel was highly restricted except for official missions abroad, to leave the country for travel just as other citizens do.

A look into the future: Summer vacations by Cuban families in Miami, Cuban doctors and athletes who left their posts or teams while on official trips abroad returning to Cuba for visits and everyday Cubans permitted to leave the island for up to two years at a time.

They are all possible, starting Monday, when Cuba’s broad new migration and travel policy takes effect.

Cuba, which has long been criticized for keeping families apart and punishing those who try to leave the island illegally, has removed nearly all restrictions on travel by its citizens, a move that could cause ripples well beyond this island of 11 million people.

Gone is the reviled tarjeta blanca, the white card or exit visa that Cuba used to control who could leave the island. Gone is the notarized letter of invitation from a foreign host.

Now Cubans simply need a valid passport to travel — as long as they can get a visa from the country they intend to visit and a ticket for travel. Cuban authorities say they have set up 195 locations around the country where citizens may apply for their passports. Those who already hold passports will be required to recertify them under the reform.

But getting an entry visa allowing travel to another country and paying for a ticket are two big ifs.

“I was in Havana when the new policy was announced in October and people were very happy,’’ said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who lives in Miami. “But people thought it was going to be easy to get a visa and travel. Just getting the money for a ticket will be a monumental problem for many people.’’

Presumably many Cubans will seek visas to travel to the United States — and now even minor children will be allowed to travel as long as they have the authorization of parents or legal guardians.

“The United States welcomes any reforms that allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely,’’ said Will Ostick, spokesman for the U.S. State Department Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

But it’s unlikely the U.S. Interests Section in Havana will be handing out significantly more non-migrant visas than it does now. That could spur Cubans, intent on reaching the United States, to seek indirect routes through nearby countries or those that don’t require entry visas for Cubans.

“We cannot predict if the change in exit visa requirements will lead to a change in migration patterns from Cuba,’’ said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at Friday’s State Department briefing. “We continue to encourage people not to risk their lives by undertaking dangerous sea journeys, and we note that most countries still require that Cuban citizens have entry visas.’’

Although the United States is committed to processing at least 20,000 non-migrant visas annually for Cubans, so many have been applying that last year some applicants said they were given appointments for visa interviews three years down the road.

“We have dramatically reduced wait times for visitor visa appointments…. as the U.S. government intensifies our commitment to provide appropriate legal avenues for Cubans to travel to the United States,’’ said Ostick this week.

But he said wait times for appointments could return to “multi-year levels if demand increases after the changes to Cuban exit permit requirements go into effect, because of constraints on our staffing levels and facilities in Havana.’’

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