Cuba Exit Visa

| | Havana, Cuba

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In her top floor apartment overlooking Havana, dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez teaches two human rights activists how they can use new technology to aid their work. Sánchez has used the internet, primarily through her blog, as a platform to publicly oppose the Castro government, a dangerous move on this tightly controlled island.

She has won numerous journalism prizes, been named on TIME’s 100 Most Influential list and is the only blogger to have interviewed recently re-elected US President Barack Obama.

Despite her worldwide acclaim, the 37-year-old has not been allowed to collect any of her prestigious awards thanks to a strict policy which makes leaving the island extremely difficult for Cubans.

However, there is a tentative hope that as the government reforms, the hurdles to leave the country may be falling. A new law is to come into force in January that scraps the requirement for a costly exit visa, allowing Cubans to travel freely with just a passport.

“We’ve been waiting for this reform for years. We’re so pleased,” Sánchez told me.

Strict regulations were put in place in 1961 to prevent a mass exodus two years after the Revolution led by Fidel Castro, now 86 and suffering severe health problems.

Announced in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, the new law means that Cubans will no longer have to apply for the exit visa or show a letter of invitation from a person in their intended destination.

They will simply have to apply for a passport and the relevant entry visa. Cubans will also be allowed to remain out of the country for up to two years, up from the current limit of 11 months after which they lose certain rights, such as healthcare and property.

However, there are certain restrictions. Those of value to the Revolution — doctors, scientists and engineers, for example — will not be allowed to leave, in an attempt to maintain the “human capital created by the Revolution from the theft of talent by powerful nations,” according to the text of the law.

“National security” is another caveat that the government can use to prevent departure. Sánchez worries that this will allow “ideological filters” to remain in place. “The law does not directly give people the right to enter and exit this country,” she lamented.

And there are also practicalities. The average wage here is just $18 a month and unless Cubans receive remittances from those in foreign countries, the price of a flight alone is a faraway dream.

On Havana’s beautiful seafront boulevard, the Malecón, just 90 miles from Florida’s coast, Vladimir Maiquil casts his fishing line into the warm waters. “I’d love to travel and have the opportunity to see the world,” he tells me, “but how can I afford the flight? I’ve got no chance.”

The move is part of wider reforms being enacted by President Raúl Castro, 81, who is more pragmatic than his elder brother Fidel.

The Revolutionary icon passed the presidency over to his brother in 2006 as his health deteriorated. Rumors of his impending death have circulated ever since and for many critics he remains a hurdle to progress.

Reforms have in recent years allowed small private businesses such as restaurants and guesthouses to grow although they are constrained by heavy taxation and regulation.

Sat in a rocking chair in his tiny living room in Havana, economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe argues that these changes are not happening quickly enough. "This government is trying to give the impression that it's changing, but the country is on the edge of a cliff,” he tells me. “The problem is that the government is scared. They know that economic freedom is linked to political freedom."

Back in her apartment, Sánchez intends joining the queues when the relaxed migratory law comes into force on Jan. 14. “I don’t want to feel defeated,” she said. “I’ll go to the office and try to get a passport. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the illusion that I can leave.”

For World Report, this is Girish Gupta in Havana