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Cubans upbeat on eve of liberalized travel, though some may still be barred or priced out

  • 92a736b454d84401260f6a70670021eb.jpg

    Jan. 7, 2013 - People wait to enter the U.S. Interests Section to apply for U.S. visas in Havana, Cuba. (AP)

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    In this Jan. 7, 2013 photo, a woman holds papers after filling out a passport application outside an immigration office in Havana, Cuba. In the past nearly all exit visa applications were granted, and relatively quickly, but the costs were prohibitive to many in this country where wages average $20 a month. Between notarization and application fees, fees ran to $300 or more per trip, and some Cubans paid an additional $200 to $300 to people overseas for invitation letters. Now, with a new law taking effect Monday, Jan. 14, 203, islanders need only make a one-time $100 application for a passport, renewable for $20 every two years. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes) (The Associated Press)

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    In this Jan. 7, 2013 photo, people wait to enter the U.S. Interests Section to apply for U.S. visas in Havana, Cuba. People are awaiting a new law taking effect Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 that will let the vast majority of Cubans travel abroad without having to ask for permission first or pay for costly exit visas. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes) (The Associated Press)

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    In this Jan. 7, 2013 photo, people wait to apply for passports at an immigration office in Havana, Cuba. The overhaul of Cuba's decades-old migratory law, announced three months ago, is perhaps the most highly anticipated of a series of reforms initiated under President Raul Castro. It eliminates the hated “white card” exit visa that Cuba long forced its citizens to apply for before they could leave the island, something that led opponents to refer to the communist-run country as an “island prison.” (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes) (The Associated Press)

Ana Liliam Garcia has never left Cuba but she hopes that will soon change, excitedly talking of her desire to meet her many relatives in Florida, and perhaps even Mickey Mouse.

The raven-haired 16-year-old is eagerly awaiting a new law taking effect Monday that will let the vast majority of Cubans travel abroad for the first time in 50 years.

The overhaul of Cuba's decades-old migratory law, announced three months ago, is perhaps the most highly anticipated of a series of reforms initiated under President Raul Castro. It eliminates the hated "white card" exit visa that Cuba long forced its citizens to apply for before they could leave the island, something that led opponents to refer to the communist-run country as an "island prison."

"My cousins and my uncles, they're all in Miami," Garcia said in Havana. "I would like to see Disneyland in the United States. I'll be able to travel!"

While the law has ignited dreams of travel, observers predict it will result in only a modest initial increase in trips by Cubans, who must still get visas from the destination countries, including the United States. And critics note that the law includes a "national security" clause that could be used to bar exits by government opponents, skilled workers and those privy to sensitive information.

But if applied evenhandedly, the opening would eliminate one of the biggest human rights criticisms leveled against Cuba: that the state decides who can and who cannot leave the country.

"What's important about it is people see this as a symbolic step of some importance more than a substantive one," said Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. "It symbolizes the end of the state intruding in the same way it used to in people's regular lives."

The new law has a number of concrete provisions that will benefit many Cubans.

For Garcia, it means a first chance to travel since under the previous rules most minors could only leave Cuba if they planned to do so permanently.

As a dual Spanish citizen, something she and tens of thousands of other Cubans have attained through Spanish ancestry, the teen qualifies to visit Florida without having to worry about a U.S. visa.

Relatives there will help out with airfare and other costs her parents can't afford.

"My aunts and uncles are overjoyed," Garcia said. "In my dreams, I want to see the whole world ... but I always would want to return to where my family and friends are."

The measure greatly simplifies the bureaucracy of travel by scrapping the "white card" and doing away with the requirement that Cubans provide a letter of invitation from someone in their country of destination.

In the past nearly all exit visa applications were granted, and relatively quickly, but the costs were prohibitive to many in this country where wages average $20 a month. Between notarization and application fees, fees ran to $300 or more a trip, and some Cubans paid an additional $200 to $300 to people overseas for invitation letters.

Now, islanders need only make a one-time $100 application for a passport, renewable for $20 every two years.

The new rules also raise from 11 to 24 months the amount of time Cubans can be gone without losing residency rights. That will make it easier for people to work or study abroad longer while maintaining ties to the island, potentially sending money to relatives or even returning with hard-currency earnings to invest in newly legalized small businesses or cooperatives.

"It will create more of a revolving door instead of an escape hatch," said Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College in New York. "They're removing another thorn in the crown of thorns that a lot of Cubans have to wear."

The migratory law is a PR coup for the Cuban government, which bristles at outside criticism of its human rights record. It also gives Havana ammunition in its crusade against the 50-year U.S. embargo, which bars most Americans from traveling to the island.

"Cuba permits its citizens to come travel here. We don't permit our citizens to travel there without a regulatory framework that is probably stricter than what the Cubans are going to adopt," Thale said. "So it does look hypocritical."

The law also has implications for U.S. policy, which allows Cubans who reach American soil to stay and grants them residency rights after just a year. The Cuban law's 24-month window means there will be a one-year overlap during which immigrants can establish U.S. residency without losing their right of return, potentially spawning a new class of binationals able to move back and forth seamlessly between the two countries.

The stated aim of the United States' Cuban Adjustment Act is to provide refuge for those fleeing oppression, not easy citizenship for those who wish to straddle both worlds, and some Cuban-American lawmakers have already talked of revisiting the policy.

As with many things in Cuba, the effect of the reform will come down to how it is implemented.

A key article gives authorities the right to deny passports in some cases, including people facing criminal investigation, those with outstanding debts or for "reasons of Defense and National Security."

The latter provision has widely been interpreted to mean that people in strategic professions, such as military officers, athletes or government figures with access to sensitive information, could be turned down just as they were in the past.

One litmus test will be how Cuba handles dissidents, who are officially considered traitors and are routinely denied travel permission.

Anti-government blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has been barred from leaving at least 19 times, has said state security agents told her in the past she could only leave if it was for good.

"My suitcase is still packed for a trip WITH RETURN!" she tweeted recently. "Will I be allowed to go?"

Berta Soler, a leader of the opposition group the Ladies in White, also said she plans to test the law. If successful, she hopes to finally travel to Strasbourg, France, to receive the European Union's 2005 Sakharov human rights prize.

But dissidents are skeptical their situation will change.

"I think the migratory law is a way of creating the illusion of an opening in the eyes of the international community so Cuba is not criticized so much," said Guillermo Farinas, another Sakharov winner who was turned down for an exit visa in 2006, 2007 and 2010.

There are at least some indications that authorities may be more open to travel in sensitive cases.

This week word emerged of a Health Ministry directive saying doctors are to be treated like all other citizens in their travel requests. The news came as a surprise because health care workers are among those closely guarded to prevent "brain drain" of skilled workers trained at great cost under Cuba's socialist system. It was widely presumed that doctors would fall under the "national security" clause.

That should make life easier for people like Pedro Salazar, a 45-year-old industrial designer. He and his wife, Noelis Rodriguez, have been granted U.S. family-reunification immigrant visas, but have been waiting for Rodriguez, an epidemiologist, to be cleared to leave.

"I'm a professional. What does it matter if I live here or elsewhere?" Salazar said on a recent day outside a migration office. "They educate professionals for free, yes, it's true. But then I spent two years doing social service."

Analysts say islanders will likely not be flocking en masse to the Grand Canyon or the French Riviera anytime soon.

Securing entry visas to Europe or the United States can be difficult for citizens of any developing nation. And low salaries mean millions of Cubans will be priced out.

But experts say more and more islanders will be able to see the outside world, something likely to fuel a demand for more change.

"The new migratory policy is an incentive for (further) reform in politics and the economy," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban-born economist at the University of Denver. "The right to travel is a multiplier of rights."

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Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi

Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP