Cuba Steps Toward Openness With New Migration Policy

On October 16, the Cuban government announced long-anticipated changes to its migration policy, including the elimination of exit permit requirements for Cuban citizens to travel abroad. The changes, which will go in effect January 14, 2013, represent the latest attempt by President Raúl Castro to respond to the demands of the Cuban people and stimulate economic growth.

The Cuban government began imposing restrictions on travel in 1961 in an effort to stem the flow of people fleeing the country following Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Under the existing rules, Cuban citizens are required to obtain an exit permit as well as present a letter of invitation from an individual or institution overseas in order to travel abroad and pay a prohibitive fee, without guarantee that the permission to travel will be granted. Starting on January 14, Cubans will now only need to have a valid passport and a visa, if required by the receiving country, to travel.

In addition, the new measures allow Cubans to live abroad for longer periods of time–24 months, up from 11—without having to relinquish their rights in Cuba and could make it easier for Cubans that left the country both permanently and/or illegally to re-establish residence in Cuba. Currently, Cubans that reside outside the country lose their residency and access to such benefits as healthcare and social security after 11 months.

The expectation is that these changes will give Cubans the opportunity to work abroad and an incentive to return home and invest much needed capital into the country. This follows the experience of other Communist-run countries that also loosened travel restrictions and engaged their diasporas in order to pull their countries out of economic stagnation. In Vietnam, the government implemented policies following the Doi Moi economic liberalization to encourage investments by Vietnamese exiles and considered their contributions “patriotic.” The fact that Cuba is now willing to modestly engage Cuban emigrants, and welcome their return, is perceived as a step in the right direction.

While the new measures are momentous, they still fall short of a complete liberalization of migration policy. It is possible that instead of regulating exit permits, the Cuban government may now control who comes and goes by denying passports. Travel restrictions will remain in place for certain people, including Cubans with civil and other obligations such as mandatory military service.

In addition, to prevent brain drain, the Cuban government will continue to limit departures for people in the following categories: (i) Cubans who are involved in activities vital to the economic, social, or scientific development of the country, and/or those with specific knowledge of the financial and material resources of the country (ii) graduates of higher education and (iii) mid-level technicians, especially those that work in health, science, and technology and (iv) high-performance athletes and trainers.

Given the country’s strong desire to preserve its human capital, we may see fewer and fewer Cubans opting to pursue careers in health, science, and technology and/or leave their studies early in hopes of finishing their degrees and working elsewhere. Finally, the Cuban government retains the right to bar travel by anyone for reasons of national security or public interest—a category that is wide open to interpretation.

It remains to be seen how the new measures will be implemented and what impact it will have on Cuba. The aforementioned loopholes, coupled with the prohibitive costs associated with travel, mean that only a subset of the population will benefit from the new policies. As with the previous steps by the Cuban government toward a market economy—allowing for property sales and private entrepreneurship—the majority of people who will benefit from these reforms are Cubans with relatives abroad and/or with access to hard currency (those that work in tourism or the private sector.) The government’s gamble to have the private sector absorb the one million state workers whose jobs they had planned to cut has not panned out as planned. At present, only 7.6% of the workforce is employed by the entrepreneurial sector. There are not enough jobs to go around, and as a result there are growing disparities amongst the population. Ironically, those that have dedicated their lives to upholding the values of the Revolution – earning less than $20 a month—are at a disadvantage. To counter the widening gap and quell potential discontent, the government will need to implement mechanisms to redistribute the wealth and to ensure that there is a safety net in place so that all people benefit and not just a small fraction.

It is also unclear how other countries will respond. Cubans still need visas to visit many countries, and like other citizens from developing countries, they will have a difficult time proving they will not overstay their visit. Most Cubans do not have the necessary requisites to prove strong ties to their home country and thus the likelihood that they will return. Countries like Ecuador and Panama, which currently do not require visas, could see an influx of Cuban visitors, many of whom will make their way to the United States.

The potential surge in Cuban arrivals to the United States could prompt the United States to adjust its own immigration policies towards Cuba.  Many analysts suggest that an appropriate response from the United States would be to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act (enacted in 1966), which gives preferential treatment to Cuban emigrants and, according to the Cuban government, leads people to make unsafe border crossings.  It is unlikely that the United States will make such a move, given that the two countries have failed to agree upon the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross, who remains in prison in Cuba, and with the US presidential election just two weeks away. 

Sarah Doty is the Director of the Cuba Program at the Social Science Research Council.

In the photo: Raúl Castro