Breaking the status quo

Have passport, will travel.

January 14th, 2013 | Posted by Alex in Cuba travel | Cuban reforms

Today marks an important milestone in Cuba’s reform process. For the first time in 50 years, Cubans will be able to request a passport, obtain a visa, pay for a plane ticket and travel outside the island.

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It’s been a long road, one that started when international travel was brought under the regime’s control in the early 60s, under the guise of protecting Cubans from the influence of the “imperialism”. By the 70s and 80s, when I was growing up, the ability to travel because of someone’s work was one of the highest privileges, akin to being a millionaire in the US.

People who traveled –airline pilots, athletes and musicians, government bureaucrats, sailors (notorious for their participation in the black market), and the top echelon: ambassadors and diplomatic personnel– had things in their houses that regular Cubans had no access to: record players, boomboxes and VCRs (for some reason Cubans preferred the Betamax format), color TVs, blue jeans and t-shirts with bright graphics in the front (no matter if they were a promotion for a convenience store in Nicaragua) and garish faux bullfighting posters from Spain, with the name of the lucky traveller in the place of the bullfighter’s.  This unlikely status symbol was ubiquitous on the walls of well-to-do Cubans, with its implications of a Hemingway-like familiarity with Spain’s rings, and I didn’t know until much later that it could be obtained for a few pesetas in a store in Barajas airport, while en route to the decidedly less exotic destinations of Bulgaria or Romania.

I remember when my father was required to travel twice to the Soviet Union (with a stopover in Gardner, Canada!) and my mother to Bulgaria. A trip was announced many months in advance, then came the expectant wait to see if the trip was approved, then the preparations. They got special authorization to shop in a store for Cubans travelling abroad, so they could properly represent our worker’s paradise and not look like fools. My father got his first suit in decades, a heavy coat and a ushanka. They also got a per diem in rubles and levs, which I studied curiously, trying to imagine how many treasures could be acquired with the colorful bills. Then there was the making of lists for presents, as detailed and filled with hopes as what American kids wrote to Santa. My first request: a Rubik cube.

While most travel was limited to former socialist countries (or war zones, like Angola), and thus made it impossible to defect, the most common stopover-and-refuel airports in Gardner and Barajas presented an opportunity, and many Cubans found themselves running wildly hrough the airport looking for the first Canadian mountie or Spanish civil guard to whom they could surrender and ask for asylum.

In the late 80s and early 90s, faced with the double reality of the loss of Soviet support and the need for hard currency, the government relaxed its rules and allowed more Cubans to travel. First came permission for those over 65 years old, then for those who had been “invited” by foreign friends or institutions. Always with restrictions, always with capricious rules and obstacles, but at least there was a chance. Obtaining a letter of invitation and a sponsorship became an obsession for many. I tried to leave twice with invitations to participate in professional conferences, until succeeding the third time. Many of my friends applied to innumerable scholarships, conferences and teaching opportunities. Others took the perhaps easier route of romancing a tourist and obtaining a marriage visa. Others simply paid for their carta de invitación in a quickly flourishing black market.

This is the story whose next chapter will start being written today. How many Cubans will be able to take advantage of this newfound freedom? I suspect not many. Not unlike most developing countries, plane tickets are prohibitive for most, and countries are reluctant to provide visas to people they suspect may stay illegally. On the other hand, as we noted before, only 12.8% of Cubans who travel abroad choose not to return to the island. This new normal means not only that there won’t be a mass exodus of Cubans, but that obtaining visas from other countries may be easier than previously thought.

As of today also, Cubans are less restricted to visit the US than Americans are to visit to Cuba. The irony of this state of affairs doesn’t escape any rational person outside the most entrenched hardliners. Up in the air is also their response to this move, but early indications are that they will move to repeal or change one of their until-now most precious and fought-for legislative victories: the Cuban Adjustment Act. I harbor no illusions about the extent of their hate for a new reality that includes a more normal movement and higher interaction between Cubans inside and outside the island.

For me, I still think this is a wait and see situation. The restrictions have been eliminated, but potentially the government can prevent anybody from obtaining a passport with little or no explanation. Yoanis’ case continues to be the ultimate test of the reforms. And as said before, the most humiliating –and a cash cow for the government– restriction still remains: Cubans who reside abroad have to pay upwards of $400 for a Cuban passport, regardless if they have acquired another country’s citizenship, and $200 for a stamp that allows us to enter the country. Hopefully those will also be eliminated soon.


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