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Long lines at Cuba travel agencies on day 1 of new travel law

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Jan. 14, 2013 - People wait to enter the U.S. Interests Section to apply for U.S. visas in Havana, Cuba.AP

Cubans formed long lines outside travel agencies and migration offices in Havana on Monday as a highly anticipated new law took effect ending the island's much-hated exit visa requirement.

The measure means the end of both real and symbolic obstacles to travel by islanders, though it is not expected to result in a mass exodus. Most Cubans are now eligible to leave with just a current passport and national identity card, just like residents of other countries.

It's a tangible benefit for people like Ester Ricardo, a 68-year-old Havana resident who was granted a U.S. tourist visa but denied an exit permit. She queued up early outside the office of a charter airline eager to book a flight to Miami as soon as possible.

"My niece invited me, so I'm going on a family visit," said Ricardo, who plans to be in Florida for around six months. "I'm not going to stay forever. I have a daughter here."

And there have been signs that even islanders in sensitive roles — or open opposition to the Communist government — will be included, a key litmus test of the reforms' scope. A well-known Cuban dissident said she's been told she will now be allowed to travel after being blocked multiple times in the past.

Control over who can travel now largely shifts to other governments which will make their own decisions about granting entry visas. Cubans, like people in most other developing countries, will still find it difficult in many cases to get visas from wealthier nations like the U.S.

Several European diplomats in Havana said their embassies have received a high volume of calls from would-be travelers unaware that they would still need a visa, despite a campaign in official Cuban media to clarify the new requirements.

"I have my passport, my identity card, everything in order," said Willian Pineira, a 23-year-old who tried to buy a plane ticket Monday to visit relatives but was turned down because he lacked an entry visa. "I wanted to go to Venezuela. But it turns out you have to have permission from them!"

Cuba observers and foreign governments have been waiting to see how the government implements the law to gauge its effect. The measure contains language that lets the government deny travel in cases of "national security," and one key test of the law will be whether authorities allow exits in sensitive cases such as military officers, scientists, and world-class athletes.

"We will see if this is implemented in a very open way, and if it means that all Cubans can travel," said Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. "If it is implemented in such a manner, it would be a very, very positive" reform.

In meetings throughout the country last week, doctors were told that most of them will be treated like any other citizen when it comes to travel, a surprise given Cuba's long-standing concerns about brain drain of health care workers.

One of the first people in line at the immigration office Monday morning was dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who says she has been denied an exit visa 20 times in recent years.

Sanchez reported that her application for a new passport went smoothly. She was told it would take 15 days, and once she has the document she would be able to travel.

"I have hope, but I'll believe it when I'm sitting in an airplane," she said.

At Havana's international airport, bustling with Cuban-American travelers returning home after spending the holidays with family on the island, people praised the change but said there are still obstacles like cost and the difficulty of getting an entry visa.

"I would like to travel and be with my family," said Maria Eugenia Jimenez, who was seeing off her sister who lives in Miami. "They (the U.S.) turned me down for a visa because I could be a possible immigrant. ... Now the problem is with the other countries, not with Cuba."

The United States has a target of issuing 20,000 migrant visas per year to Cubans and processes tourist visa applications on a case-by-case basis.

However, many thousands of Cubans have obtained dual Spanish citizenship through ancestral claims in recent years, and as such are eligible to travel to the United States without a visa.

Consular officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Washington's diplomatic mission on the island, acknowledge a huge backlog.

In October, the Interests Section more than doubled its capacity for processing nonimmigrant visa applications, and the wait time for an interview has fallen from nearly five years to less than a year, according to U.S. diplomats. The decision was made independently of Cuba's announcement on the exit visa, they say.

The Cuban law also increases the amount of time people can spend overseas without losing residency rights back home, from 11 months to two years. President Raul Castro's government apparently hopes that such extended stays for work or education will help the island in the long term as people send money to relatives, and potentially return with saved earnings to invest in the local economy.

The Cuban exit visa has been a key point of contention for many critics of the Communist government, who seize upon the travel restrictions to call the country an island prison.

But Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican congresswoman from Florida, said the new travel law does not change her concerns about human rights on the island.

"It's an escape valve from the regime's disastrous economic policies," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American congresswoman representing Florida. "What the Cuban people want and desire is liberty and democracy."

Some analysts say the change also puts pressure on Washington's "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, which lets nearly all Cubans who make it to the United States stay and fast-tracks them for permanent residency, and throws the spotlight on U.S. embargo rules that bar most American travel to Cuba.

At least when it comes to crossing the Florida Straits, "Cuba now provides greater freedom of travel to virtually all of its citizens than does the U.S.," said John McAuliff of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which lobbies for engagement between Washington and Cuba.