HAVANA – After controlling its citizens comings and goings for five decades, Cuba appears on the verge of a momentous decision to end many travel restrictions, with one senior official saying a "radical and profound" change is weeks away.
That comment, by Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon, has residents, exiles and policymakers abuzz with speculation that the much-hated exit visa could be a thing of the past, even if Raul Castro's government still carefully limits the travel of doctors, scientists, military personnel and others in sensitive roles.
Other top Cuban officials have cautioned against over-excitement, most recently at a weekend teleconference designed to bridge the gap with Cuban emigrants, leaving islanders and Cuba experts to wonder how far Havana's aging leaders are willing to go.
In the last 18 months, Castro has already removed prohibitions on some private enterprise, legalized real estate and car sales, and allowed compatriots to hire employees, ideas that were long anathema to the government's Marxist underpinnings. But scrapping travel controls could be an even bigger step, at least symbolically, and it carries enormous economic, social and political risk.
Even half measures such as cutting staggeringly high visa fees or ending limits on how long Cubans can live abroad would be significant.
"It would be a big step forward," said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute. "If Cuba ends the restrictions on its own citizens' travel, that means the only travel restrictions that would remain in place would be those the United States imposes on its citizens."
The move would open the door to increased emigration, and make it easier for those overseas to avoid forfeiting their residency rights, a fate that has befallen waves of exiles since the 1959 revolution. It could also bolster the number of Cubans who travel abroad for work, increasing remittances in the short term and investment by a new moneyed class in the long.
Peters and several other analysts said they doubted the new rules would bring about any immediate shift in Washington's Cuba policies, including a ban on American tourism, which are entrenched and enjoy the backing of powerful Cuban American exiles.
"I don't think it would lead to a drastic change in U.S. policy, but an accumulation of human rights improvements could lead to an incremental change," he said.
Rumors of the exit visa's imminent demise have circulated on and off for years. The whispers became open chatter last spring after the Communist Party endorsed migration reform at a crucial gathering — only for Castro to dash those hopes in December, saying the timing wasn't right and the "fate of the revolution" was at stake.
Alarcon's comments in an interview published in April then revived hopes nonetheless that a bold move is coming.
"One of the questions that we are currently discussing at the highest level of the government is the question of emigration," he told French journalist Salim Lamrani. "We are working toward a radical and profound reform of emigration that in the months to come will eliminate this kind of restriction."
But Saturday, Vice Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez told exiles not to set their hopes too high, vowing the government would always maintain some travel controls so long as it faced a threat from enemies in Washington.
Havana residents say they are on the edge of their seats waiting to see what the government does.
"The time has come to get rid of the exit visa," said Vivian Delgado, a 45-year-old shopworker. "It's absurd that as a Cuban I must get permission to leave my country, and even worse that I need permission to come back."
Added Domingo Blanco, a 24-year-old state office worker: "It's as if one needed to ask to leave one's own house."
Many Cubans are reluctant to talk about their own experience with the exit visa . One woman named Miru, who has been trying to leave Cuba since 2006, shared her story on the condition her full name not be used for fear that speaking with a foreign journalist could land her in trouble.
"This has been a very long process," she said of her odyssey, which began when her husband defected from a medical mission in Africa and sought asylum in the United States.
First, she had to get a letter releasing her from her job at a government ministry — a process that took five years. Only then could she even apply for the exit visa. That was three months ago, and Miru still hasn't received an answer. Officials say her case is complicated, but won't give her a specific reason for the delay.
"I am very anxious to see my husband again," she said.
The exit controls are a Cold War legacy of Cuba's alliance with the Soviet Union, instituted in December 1961 to fight brain drain as hundreds of thousands of doctors and other professionals fled — many for new lives in South Florida. That was three months before the U.S. embargo barring most trade with the island went into full effect.
Over the years, it has become much easier for Cubans to obtain permission to travel, though many are still denied and it is particularly hard to take minors out of the country.
Bureaucratic fees are another obstacle. The exit visa's $150 price tag is a small fortune in a country where salaries average about $20 a month. Whomever the traveler wishes to visit also must pay $200 at a Cuban consulate overseas.
Those who leave only get a 30-day pass, and the cost of an extension varies by country. In the United States, the fee is $130 a month. Those who stay abroad more than 11 months lose the right to reside in Cuba. Before 2011, any property would automatically go to the state.
"The Cuban government has monetized every part of the humiliating process of coming and going," said Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba expert and author of "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington." ''Getting out means running a gauntlet and it is all based on how much humiliation you can endure, and by the time they end up in Miami, people are filled with hate and dreams of revenge."
Cuban officials have long defended the measures as a necessary counter to Washington's efforts to meddle. They accuse the U.S. of trying to lure away doctors by letting them walk into any American consulate and request asylum. Havana says it spends more than $40,000 apiece to train doctors who are sent on missions to allies such as Venezuela, which gives Cuba billions of dollars in oil in return.
Even ordinary islanders are encouraged to leave, Cuban officials say, by U.S. regulations that automatically grant asylum to any who reach U.S. shores, a policy Cuba says has encouraged thousands to attempt the dangerous trip on leaky boats and makeshift rafts across the Florida Straits.
It's not clear how migratory reform will affect dissidents, who are routinely denied permission to leave and could still find themselves on some form of no-exit list.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez called the exit controls "our own Berlin Wall without the concrete. ... A wall made of paperwork and stamps, overseen by the grim stares of soldiers." She has been denied travel papers at least 19 times by her own count.
Noted hunger striker Guillermo Farinas, who said he has been turned down five times since 2006, worried that migratory reform could include a loophole that authorities would use to keep dissidents from returning.
"If there is no restriction like that, yes, I would try to leave," said Farinas, who won the European Union's 2010 Sakharov human rights prize but was unable to accept it in person.
Scrapping exit controls should win Cuba kudos in Europe, which improved ties after dozens of political prisoners were freed in 2010; U.S. policymakers more focused on democratic reform are likely to be more guarded.
"The reaction in Washington will be positive, but measured," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, an exiled Cuban economist at the University of Denver.
Some hardliners in Florida have already predicted that any change will be merely a sleight of hand designed to export malcontents, ease a severe housing shortage and fob off legions of superfluous state workers.
But for hundreds of thousands of Cubans like Miru, the exit visa is not a political matter, but a personal ordeal.
After six years separated from her husband, she's terrified of somehow jeopardizing her chances of going overseas. She holds onto hope that she'll finally obtain permission or benefit from a change in the law.
"I have followed all the rules of my country," she said. "I'll be so happy to leave."
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi contributed to this report
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