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Originally published October 16, 2012 at 6:15 PM | Page modified October 17, 2012 at 9:40 AM

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Cuba eases foreign-travel rules for its citizens

The new travel regulations will extend the time Cubans are allowed to remain abroad from 11 months to 24 months or more, in some cases, pending government approval. They also eliminate the need for Cubans to obtain a letter from a person or institution inviting them to the country they wish to visit.

Los Angeles Times

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MEXICO CITY — The Cuban government announced Tuesday it plans to rescind the requirement that its citizens obtain exit visas to travel abroad, generating hope on the island that a long-standing bureaucratic hindrance to freedom of movement will soon be restored.

The change in immigration policy was announced Tuesday in the official state newspaper Granma, with the details printed in the government's legal journal. Beginning Jan. 14, the news report said, Cubans wishing to leave the island temporarily will no longer need to obtain a government-issued "travel permit" — a document that in the past has been withheld for political or arbitrary reasons.

How the new rules will change things for everyday Cubans remain to be seen. Much depends on the way the law is applied and the fine print. Cubans will still need to obtain a passport, and the new rules allow officials to deny anyone a passport for "reasons of public interest."

The government also said it would keep special travel restrictions for the professional classes because it fears they could be lured away by high salaries abroad after benefiting from a low-cost education — an attempt, as the regime puts it, to preserve "the human capital created by the revolution from the theft of talents practiced by the powerful nations."

Even so, the reaction on the island was reportedly galvanizing. Philip Peters, a Cuba expert and vice president at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va., said that in the city of Cienfuegos, where he was traveling Tuesday, the newspaper had sold out and brochures explaining the changes had disappeared from the post offices.

"I talked to a guy today who was overjoyed because he has a brother in the U.S. and a brother in Canada, and he's no longer blocked from seeing them," Peters said. "People are very excited by this. It's been a long time coming."

The change is one of the most significant enacted by Raul Castro, who took over the reins of government from his ailing older brother Fidel in 2006. Among other things, Cubans may now buy and sell houses and cars, open small businesses and own cellphones and computers.

The new regulations will extend the time Cubans may remain abroad from 11 months to 24 months or more, in some cases, pending government approval. They also eliminate the need for Cubans to obtain a letter from a person or institution inviting them to the country they wish to visit.

The policy may be a way for Castro to be rid of internal critics, who might use it to seek permanent exile abroad. Perhaps most dramatically, however, the move amounts to a big bet on the government's part that Cubans will choose to return home, even after visiting societies that offer more liberty, better wages and more and better things to eat.

The result may not only affect Cuba but other nations in the hemisphere.

In 1980, a temporary loosening of immigration rules on the island sent tens of thousands of Cubans seeking asylum to South Florida. The so-called Mariel boatlift, which included some criminals and the mentally ill, created a logistical and humanitarian crisis for the U.S.

Under its "wet foot, dry foot" policy, the U.S. allows any Cubans who make it to U.S. shores to apply for permanent residence after a year of good behavior.

Now, notes David Abraham, an immigration-law professor at the University of Miami, "every single tourist from Cuba who arrives in the U.S. will be immediately eligible for conditional permanent residence."

But U.S. officials presumably would have a mechanism to check the inflow of Cubans because potential visitors from the island would still need to obtain a U.S. travel visa. The State Department issued about 14,000 tourist visas to Cubans in fiscal 2011.

In a news briefing in Washington on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. visa requirement "remains unchanged."

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