Cuban People Free to Travel: First Time in 50 Years (El Sol de Tijuana, 1/14/13 by AFP)

Havana, Cuba - Cubans can, for the first time in 50 years, travel abroad without asking the Government beginning Monday, and now face the usual problems of any traveler or migrant: the price of the tickets and those destination countries, United States and Spain mainly for granting a visa. The Elimination of the need to request permission from the Government came into force Monday but did not translate into a great influx to passport offices or foreign consulates.

The law establishes now all Cubans can travel out of the country if they have valid passport, since they stopped needing permission to exit and a letter of invitation from someone on the outside. Opposition blogger Yoani Sánchez, who was denied a travel permit dozen times, went on Monday to ask for a passport in the Havana neighborhood of El Vedado Migration Office and hopes to have it in 15 days. "I asked for my passport and have been told that it will be in about 15 days. I asked (officials) if I can travel and I have been told yes, but when I get on a plane I will believe it. I am hopeful but remain cautious," Sanchez told AFP.

Hundreds of Cubans came to the United States Consulate on Monday to be interviewed to obtain visas for tourism, business or to attend conferences, but this amount is "normal" and appointments were scheduled for months prior, a diplomatic source told AFP. "We have not seen more people today, it's normal, everyone who comes must have an appointment; this was scheduled for months and possibly years", said the source, who asked not be identified. "For months we have interviewed more people every day", between 300 and 350 people, he explained.

The usual amount of travelers was also observed at the Havana airport, travel agencies and at the consulates of Spain, Mexico and Canada, nations that also migrate many Cubans. Almost all countries require visa for Cubans, except for some nations in the former Communist bloc and small islands in the Caribbean. None observed large numbers of people at different migration offices in Havana, where some Cubans flocked to renew passports and learned the formality was unnecessary.

"That’s efficiency, efficiency, I wish everything was so", the musical composer Lorenzo de Armas, 65, told AFP upon learning the Immigration Office of El Vedado that his passport had been updated "ex officio". "Also I don't have to pay money, for a permit or need a letter of invitation, it is fabulous," added De Armas, who plans to travel to Mexico to visit his son.

The immigration reform, announced on October 16, was well received by the population, although some dissidents remain skeptical, because they fear that the Government will still prevent them from selectively exiting the country.

One is the ELAs leader of the opponents Damas de Blanco, Berta Soler, who said that she would like to go to Strasbourg, France, so that the European Parliament can give her the Sakharov Prize awarded in 2005 to the Damas de Blanco and who have not been able to receive it since the Cuban Government denied them permission to travel. "The Andrei Sakharov Prize is waiting for us since 2005 in Strasbourg, we will see if the European Parliament can prepare a ceremony to award us delivery", Soler told AFP. Soler, who explained that she will wait until February to ask for a Passport, stated that "immigration reform is more of the same, product that is always going to have a filter; the Cuban Government is going to select who can or cannot leave the country".

Immigration law is one of the reforms introduced by President Raúl Castro since he took remote control of his sick brother Fidel, who imposed restrictions to leave the island in 1961, amid great tension with the United States, at a peak time of the cold war. The new law also allows minors to leave the country, but with notarized permission from their parents or legal guardians.

The reform also benefits nearly two million Cuban emigrants, who no longer have to take long procedures to visit Cuba, including athletes and professionals who defected on tours abroad, or escaped from the island. With this reform, the main barrier to leave the Communist island now is economic, for the cost of air fare, banknotes and passports, as well as visas for other countries.

This obstacle is a lot in a poor country where the average salary is $20 a month, where a Passport costs $100 and an airline ticket to Florida, where the largest community of Cuban immigrants resides, is worth more than $500. The authorities said that not all Cubans can apply for Passports to travel freely, because athletes, certain officials, military and "vital" professionals will continue to have restrictions to leave the country, of 11.1 million inhabitants. The Government so far has not disclosed the list of "vital" professions, but last week reported that doctors are not included in this list, so they can travel unimpeded.

The United States greeted this immigration reform, on the grounds that "it is consistent with the Universal Declaration of human rights" and announced that it will not change its policy for visas of Cubans. 85% Of Cubans emigrants and their descendants live in United States. For half a century, from 1961 until 2011, the properties of the émigrés were confiscated. Until now selective exit permits were denied without explanation. However, some 38,000 Cubans emigrated annually in legal ways and many others visited family and friends abroad. http://www.oem.com.mx/elsoldetijuana/notas/n2842131.htm

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