Brave new world of Cuba travel begins Monday


MIAMI — 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 past 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.”

Currently, the number of consular personnel authorized at the U.S. and Cuban Interests Sections is 50 people and there is strict reciprocity between the two countries, which maintain Interest Sections instead of embassies because they don’t have diplomatic relations.

“I think there will be a large number of Cubans who will want to leave,” said Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University and national security advisor for Latin America during the Carter administration. The majority, he said, will probably opt for a third country that doesn’t require Cubans to obtain an entry visa or that is within striking distance of U.S. borders.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who reach U.S. soil can be paroled into the United States and become permanent residents a year later. Making the whole scenario even more convoluted: under Cuba’s migration reform, Cubans will be allowed to stay outside the island for up to two years — rather than the current 11 months — without losing their rights as residents, meaning they could get green cards and work in the United States and still freely return to Cuba at the end of 24 months if they choose.

In this hemisphere, Haiti, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and a handful of small islands such as St Lucia and Grenada don’t require entry visas for Cubans. Maximum stays range from a low of 28 days in Barbados to as long as 90 days in Ecuador and Haiti.

“Cuban citizens like many other foreigners can enter Ecuador without a visa for tourism,” said Nathalie Cely Suarez, Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States

Some Cubans, she said, have tried to use “irregular mechanisms,” such as fake marriages, to remain in Ecuador, which has prompted stricter controls by Ecuadorian authorities.

Because of the difficulty in reaching the United States, the ambassador said she didn’t think concerns about Cubans using Ecuador as a launching pad to reach the U.S. are “substantive.” But already there are reports of smugglers taking Cubans who enter Ecuador across Colombia to the rugged Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama and then on up to the Mexican border.

Mexico requires entry visas for Cubans but it has been a favorite jumping off point for Cubans who can present themselves at the border and request to be paroled into the United States under the adjustment act, a 1966 law that was designed to normalize the status of thousands of Cubans who fled to the United States after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Some Cubans may make the assumption that once they reach a non-visa country, they can then apply for a U.S. entry visa but it might not help their chances. “Although visa applicants may apply at any U.S. consular office abroad, it may be more difficult to qualify for the visa outside the country of permanent residence,” said Ostick of the State Department.

Analysts say it’s hard to know whether the influx of Cubans through third countries will be a trickle or a torrent or whether it will prompt smugglers to create new networks to bring more Cubans to U.S. shores but there appear to be plenty of legal loopholes.

The U.S. Coast Guard says it will continue to maintain a “robust maritime presence in the Caribbean” but declined to say whether it planned to beef up efforts.

However, sooner or later, analysts say, Cuba’s new travel policy will have an effect on U.S. policy.

“I think there’s an understanding in Cuba that finally the ball is going to be in the other court,” Amuchastegui said.

Cuba’s new policy, for example, may indirectly prompt calls from other migrant groups for the same access to the United States now enjoyed by Cubans, said Pastor. “I think this will be a real test for the Cuban lobby to retain the Cuban Adjustment Act.”

But Larry Rifkin, a Miami immigration lawyer, said, “The Cuban Adjustment Act won’t be removed until democracy returns to Cuba.”

In the meantime, Cubans who reach U.S. borders can seek refugee status and will be admitted.

Rifkin was counsel in a 2007 case known as the “Matter of Vasquez” that involved a Venezuelan native born in Caracas to Cuban parents. The case, he said, established a legal precedent as to who qualifies as a Cuban national and is eligible under the adjustment act.

Now the U.S. accepts, he said, that a child born outside Cuba to at least one parent who is a Cuban citizen at the time of the child’s birth and registers the birth at a Cuba consulate in the country where the child is born is considered to have acquired Cuban citizenship.

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So-called step-across the border migration to the United States might also be aided by Spain’s Law of Historical Memory, which gives citizenship to the descendants of Spaniards who were persecuted and fled during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship.

Spain has closed the period for accepting passport applications under the law, which went into effect in 2008. But passport applications from 500,000 Cubans are still pending, said Gregorio Laso, a spokesman for the Spanish Embassy in Washington. Several thousand Cubans have already received Spanish passports under the law, setting them up for travel to Spain and countries and territories that don’t require entry visas for Spanish citizens. In the Caribbean that includes the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos.

The Spanish themselves aren’t expecting a large influx of Cubans under the new policy. “It is not so easy to move your family and begin a new life in another country without a job,” Laso said. Spain’s unemployment rate is currently 26.6 percent.

But he said the embassy was aware of some Cubans who have tried to enter the United States on Spanish passports. Some have been rejected, he said, but more recently, cases have been referred to immigration judges. Spaniards can visit the U.S. without a visa.

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For its part, Cuba has said it wants its travel laws to be similar to those of other countries.

“For many Cubans, this is a very positive thing,” said Nik Steinberg, an Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, “but the critical question, as with any reform, is how it is implemented. The real test will be whether those who are critical of the government” will be allowed to get their passports and travel.

The Cuban government is apparently betting that most Cubans who travel abroad will return. A program broadcast on Cuban television in October gave this statistic: Of 941,953 Cubans who traveled to foreign countries from 2000 to last August, 12.8 percent — or 120,705 people — didn’t come back to Cuba.

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(Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.)

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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.