Havana's immigration offices have been inundated with eager travelers in recent days, as Cubans rushed to apply for their first passports, with the abolition Monday of severe travel restrictions for most citizens, according to the BBC
Cuba virtually closed down its borders soon after the 1959 revolution to thwart a mass exodus of the island's talent to the United States. President Raul Castro promised change long ago but it was delayed, because Communist Party officials worried it would lead to massive migration, the BBC reports.
The move follows other steps to loosen government control over private lives. Cubans can now buy and sell their houses and cars; own mobile phones; and enter hotels previously reserved for foreigners.
Travelers can now stay away for two years instead of 11 months and extend that time further; those who left illegally more than eight years ago will no longer face impediments to come home, the BBC reports.
The main reason for the loosening of restrictions is the government hopes that by easing travel more Cubans will work and study abroad and then bring their money and expertise back to the island.
There are, however, some restrictions that still do apply.
The law refers to "preserving the qualified workforce" and on state TV a senior immigration officer singled out athletes and "vital" professionals as well as Communist Party leaders, the BBC reports.
Financial impediments also make it difficult for the average Cuban to travel, although costs have been reduced.
Previously, the total cost of all the official permits ran to around $300 — 15 times the average monthly state salary, which was a serious impediment to travel. A passport now runs approximately $100.
The United States currently issues around 20,000 immigrant visas for Cubans a year; qualifying for a tourist visa is far harder.
The State Department says it is "working to ensure that mechanisms are in place" should the number of visa applications or attempted raft-crossings soar, but urged people "not to risk their lives" at sea.
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