HAVANA – For the first time since the height of the Cold War more than half a century ago, Cuba is giving its people the freedom to leave the country without government permission, scrapping the detested exit visa that kept many from traveling outside the communist nation for even a few days.
The announcement Tuesday came as blockbuster news on the island, where citizens were ecstatic at the prospect of being able to leave for a vacation — or even forever — with only a passport and a visa from the country of their destination.
"Wow, how great!" said Mercedes Delgado, a 73-year-old retiree. "Citizens' rights are being restored. ... Let's hope this is a breakthrough to keep returning the rights that they have taken away from us."
The decree still allows Cuban authorities the ability to deny travel by many Cubans for reasons of defense and "national security," suggesting that dissidents may continue to face restrictions. So will doctors, scientists, athletes, members of the military and others considered key contributors, as well as those who face criminal charges.
An end to the hated exit visa had been promised since last year by President Raul Castro as part of his five-year reform plan. Analysts called it the latest and biggest step in a gradual relaxation of restrictions on things like opening private small businesses, owning cell phones, staying in tourist hotels and buying and selling homes and cars.
"It's an important step forward in human rights, the ability to travel outside of your country without the government's permission," said Philip Peters, a longtime Cuba analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute think tank.
"It eliminates a horrendous and offensive bureaucratic obstacle to travel."
Starting Jan. 14, Cubans will no longer have to apply for the costly "tarjeta blanca," or "white card," ending a restriction in place since 1961, the height of the Cold War.
The measure also extends to 24 months the amount of time Cubans can remain abroad, and they can request an extension when that runs out. Currently, Cubans lose residency and their rights to property, social security, free health care and free education after 11 months overseas.
Announced in the wee hours in the Communist newspaper Granma and published into law in the official Gazette, word of the change spread like wildfire Tuesday and was the talk of the streets and office buildings. Islanders greeted the news with a mixture of delight and astonishment.
"This is huge news. Everybody has been waiting for it for a long time," said Bertina Rodriguez, a 47-year-old office worker. "Because it's a kind of opening, even if I think they're doing it so that people can't say this is a place where they keep people locked up."
"I heard from my cousin who phoned from the United States," said Beatriz Suarez, a 35-year-old Havana resident. "She's all worked up about this."
Besides the exit visa, the new policy also eliminates the need for a letter of invitation from an institution or person in the destination country.
"These measures are truly substantial and profound," deputy immigration chief Col. Lamberto Fraga told a morning news conference. "What we are doing is not just cosmetic."
Still, Fraga said some people remain restricted to combat the brain drain that has already led many of the island's young and talented to leave for economic reasons.
"These professionals are going to require authorization to leave," Fraga said.
Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez expressed concern that officials might now control travel merely by denying passports.
"I have the suitcase ready to travel. ... Let's see if I get a flight for Jan. 14, 2013, to try out the new law," tweeted Sanchez, who said she has been denied an exit visa 20 times over the last five years.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Obama administration was taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"The Cuban government has kept for itself a couple of other checks on the ability of people to leave freely, including this issue of revalidating passports and this issue of claiming that they can preserve the human capital of the revolution in the country," Nuland said. "So we just need to see how this is implemented."
Migration is a highly politicized issue in Cuba and beyond its borders.
Under the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, the United States allows nearly all Cubans who reach its territory to remain, while those caught at sea are sent home and not penalized. Just last week, three members of the Cuban national soccer team defected ahead of a match in Canada and sought refuge in the U.S.
More than 1 million people of Cuban origin live in the United States, and many thousands more are in Europe and Latin America.
Granma published an accompanying editorial blaming the decades-old travel restrictions on U.S. attempts to topple the island's government, plant spies and recruit its best-educated citizens.
"The update to the migratory policy takes into account the right of the revolutionary state to defend itself from the interventionist and subversive plans of the U.S. government and its allies," Granma said. "Therefore, measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful."
While the measure greatly streamlines the travel process, analysts said it was unlikely to provoke a mass exodus.
Cubans still need to acquire entry visas for most countries, including the United States, which closely screens applicants and rejects potential overstayers. According to U.S. government statistics, about 43,000 visas were issued to Cubans in the most recent fiscal year, including both tourist and immigrant visas, and a huge backlog means the wait for a new visa application can be lengthy.
Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said U.S. visa requirements remain unchanged.
"We obviously welcome any reforms that will allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely," she said. "We remain committed to the migration accords under which our two countries support and promote safe, legal and orderly migration."
Under those 1994 accords, Washington has encouraged Havana to take steps to prevent any future mass exodus.
However, the end of the exit visa could lead to an increase in Cubans traveling to third countries and either staying there or making their way to the U.S. Islanders already fly frequently to Ecuador, which does not require an entry visa.
Kathleen Campbell Walker, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, Texas, said Homeland Security officials review passenger lists for U.S.-bound flights and are likely to order an airline to deny boarding to anyone who doesn't have a visa.
At the Versailles restaurant in Miami's Little Havana, a well-known gathering spot for Cuban-Americans, Eddie Balzola applauded the announcement.
"Anything that is more freedom for humanity is always a good thing," Balzola said. "People should have the freedom to travel and go and come as they please in every country."
But the measure was also dismissed by some exiles, including Havana-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who called it part of "so-called reforms" that are "nothing more than Raul Castro's desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing."
Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, said he was cautiously optimistic the move will reduce the isolation of the Cuban people and increase interaction between the U.S. and Cuban civil society.
"The important story is the Cuban government has taken a step that has long been demanded by the Cuban people," Bilbao said.
Peters said it's unlikely the change will inspire Washington to make an overture to Havana in the middle of a presidential election year, but this and other changes in Cuba offer opportunities for engagement with whoever takes the oath of office in January.
"The one thing that stands out now is that the travel restrictions are all on the side of the United States," Peters added, referring to the longtime ban on American tourism to the island as part of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. "That's kind of ironic."
Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana, Alicia A. Caldwell, Bradley Klapper and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington, and Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.
Peter Orsi is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi