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Cuba Lifts Exit Visa Requirements on Travel for Residents

Cuba’s government said it will no longer require residents to apply for exit visas to travel abroad, easing restrictions that have prevented most citizens from leaving the communist island for decades.

Starting Jan. 14, Cubans will no longer need to obtain invitations from a resident of a foreign country in order to travel and can stay abroad for up to 24 months, according to a statement published today in the Official Gazette. Currently, Cubans can lose residency and other rights including free health care after staying 11 months abroad.

“I think the requests to leave Cuba are going to be extraordinarily large,” said Dr. Jose Azel, a researcher at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, in a phone interview. “For over half a century Cubans have not been able to travel freely abroad, so in that sense it is a significant change.”

The shift in migration policy comes as President Raul Castro opens up the economy in the biggest overhaul since the 1959 revolution led by his brother Fidel. For the first time in a half-century, Cubans can now buy and sell property while Castro has vowed to slash state payrolls amid a decline in the price of nickel and a slowdown in tourism -- the country’s two- biggest sources of foreign currency.

Exodus

In a bid to prevent an exodus of the nation’s best and brightest, certain professionals won’t benefit from the change in rules.

The government plans to restrict some travel “to defend itself from the interventionist and subversive plans of the U.S. government and its allies,” according to today’s statement. “Measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the revolution.”

Yoani Sanchez, a dissident who frequently writes about her failed efforts to leave Cuba, questioned whether the new rules will apply to people who have clashed with the government.

“I was denied the permit to travel on 20 occasions during five years,” she wrote on her Twitter account. “Will the opening be so open?”

The eased travel restrictions will add to pressure on foreign countries’ migration offices and probably require adjustments to the number of visas granted to Cubans, Azel said.

“The larger decisions are going to have to be made by the host countries,” he said. “They are unlikely to issue thousands and thousands of tourist visas, knowing that in all likelihood, the Cuban citizens are going to stay in those countries.”

‘Dry Foot’ Policy

Those who flee the island are allowed to stay in the U.S. through the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which has given refuge to Cubans who manage to cross the Florida Straits and step foot on U.S. soil. Cubans interdicted at sea by U.S. officials are returned to the island.

While welcoming the easing of travel restrictions, the U.S. still requires Cubans to have an entry visa to legally enter and is warning them “not to risk their lives by undertaking dangerous sea journeys,” said William Ostick, a U.S. State Department spokesman.

“Like the Cuban people, we await further information on how the changes in travel rules are implemented,” Ostick said in an e-mailed statement today. “We are also looking at the possibility that changes to Cuba’s exit visa regulations may cause a change in migration patterns from Cuba.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Eric Sabo in Panama City at esabo1@bloomberg.net; Adam Williams in San Jose, Costa Rica at awilliams111@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net.

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