Like Wishing Upon a Star: Most Travel Restrictions (On Cubans) Vanish Monday

January 11, 2013

Next week, when Cuba drops travel restrictions on most of its citizens, Ana Liliam Garcia, a 16-year-old, plans on chasing a dream:  “I would like to see Disneyland in the United States,” she told the Associated Press.  “I’ll be able to travel!”

You can argue whether this represents a triumph of American culture. But, these reforms really matter, and they ought to take the discussion about U.S. policy and Cuba to a different level.

Cuba’s government imposed travel restrictions on its citizens in the early 1960s as the country experienced a “brain drain” following the Revolution.  For decades, Cubans detested the limitations symbolized by the tarjeta blanca or white card, the exit permit they had to obtain through a costly and convoluted bureaucratic process.  This restriction on the right of Cubans to leave and return to their country has been a deep source of concern to the global human rights community and a predicate for U.S. criticism of Cuba’s system.

Last fall, President Raúl Castro’s government announced an overhaul of its migration laws which will take effect on Monday.  Beginning January 14th, Cubans will need only a visa and a valid passport to leave their country; the white card will vanish, fees will be reduced, and official permission to come and go will no longer be required for most Cubans.

Some obstacles – for military officers, top scientists, and highly prized athletes – will remain in place.  Dissidents are not likely to be free to come and go.  Of course, Cuba’s decision not to change everything is already an excuse among hardliners in the U.S. for saying that Cuba hasn’t changed anything.

But, as Reuters reports, the verdict among the people whose interests are most directly affected is clearly being rendered.  Hundreds of Cubans are waiting in long lines to apply for passports in advance of the reforms becoming effective. As one Cuban told NPR, “These measures that the government is taking are a good step. Our rights have been oppressed for too long, but Cuba is changing.”

We hope President Obama is paying attention.  He has undertaken incremental but worthwhile reforms in U.S. policy, while simultaneously denying that anything meaningful has been taking place in Cuba during his presidency.  After Cuba released scores of political prisoners following talks with the Catholic Church; after the Castro government implemented the most significant changes in its economic model in six decades; after Colombia turned to Cuba to help it broker peace talks with the FARC, U.S. policy remains in an official state of denial that its goals are being met.

Cuba did not initiate these sweeping travel reforms to elicit a positive reaction from the U.S.  It long ago wearied from the repetitive process of doing things it wanted to do – that the U.S. also wanted done – only to find that U.S. policy had adopted new demands.  It will be hard for them to imagine that this time will be any different.

But, is it really possible that President Obama will feel comfortable ignoring another tangible change in the Cuban reality and insist, as he has said about Cuba so often, “If we see positive movement then we will respond in a positive way.”  Especially now that Cubans will have more freedom to see the world than American citizens have to visit Cuba?

This time, it shouldn’t be that hard.  If Ana Liliam Garcia doesn’t have to wish upon a star to have her chance to see Disneyland, that’s a real change.  It merits a real response.

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