HAVANA – Cuba seems to be betting that its decision to allow most of its citizens to travel abroad freely will be as good for its economy as it is for its public relations.
The announcement comes as the communist island nation carries out a cautious, limited free market experiment to reform Cuba's inefficient economy, which includes a plan to fire 1 million state workers and allow more entrepreneurship.
Cuba's leaders seem confident that lifting exit visa requirements will not produce an embarrassing exodus. Instead, experts say, a controlled migration might ease the pain of its economic overhaul by providing an outlet for the anticipated surge in unemployed workers and an investment in human capital if Cubans return home with experience in market economies.
The biggest problem with Cuba's layoff plan, "is that there are not enough jobs available in the private sector to absorb these workers," said Paolo Spadoni, a political scientist at Augusta State University in Georgia. "Thus, some of these workers will either leave for good or work temporarily abroad and return to Cuba, in both cases increasing the amount of remittances to the island."
Other Communist-run countries saw similar changes to travel restrictions as reform reshaped their societies. Vietnam did away with its exit and entry visa requirements in 1997, and there are now no limits on citizens traveling overseas except for dissidents deemed a threat to national security.
Citizens of the Soviet Union also once had to go through a long, complicated procedure to leave, but exit visas were formally scrapped in 1993 after the Soviet bloc's dissolution. Russians now must still apply for foreign travel passports, but there are few restrictions on those except for high-ranking intelligence and military officers and employees involved in top-secret defense projects.
Cuba's highly educated but low-paid professionals and academics seem ripe to take off, lured overseas by lucrative jobs after decades of living in a state-dominated economy with virtually no independent industry and an antiquated technological infrastructure.
Under the new provisions taking effect in January, Cubans may stay abroad for two years before forfeiting full citizenship rights; previously the limit was 11 months. Another provision allows Cubans who have emigrated for good the opportunity to apply to return.
Those changes could make it easier for islanders to study or work abroad, returning in theory as valuable contributors to Castro's evolving hybrid economy.
"We are facing something new, a positive step in that doors have been opened in terms of job-training and -formation for the Cuban labor force," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban economist who lectures at the University of Denver. "Yes, the potential for migration is going to increase, but in an optimal scenario for Cuban policy, without reaching destabilizing levels."
But some might call it an act of faith to expect that a Cuban professional, who earns an average of about $20 a month, would be filled with sufficient revolutionary fervor to return from a high-paid job in Europe.
And whether the new Cuban economy will take off remains a key question.
Raul Castro has decentralized industries, expanded private entrepreneurship and farming, legalized home and car sales and is about to enter an experimental phase with medium-size cooperative businesses.
But the state retains a dominant role in all key sectors, and analysts say today's entrepreneurial landscape dotted with what some have dubbed "bonsai businesses" is hardly enough to rescue the economy.
"You let them go for a couple of years ... always under control, and then they come home with a little money saved up," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former government economist turned dissident. "Those who do come back, I don't think they'll bring much with them."
However, the remittances from those who stay abroad may make Castro's gamble worthwhile.
While economic migration more typically involves low-skilled labor, in recent years professionals have made up 12 percent of Cuba's outward flow, according to a 2010 study by Havana University historian and sociologist Antonio Aja Diaz.
Money sent home by Cubans living overseas, overwhelmingly in the United States, is already among the island's most important sources of hard currency and growing thanks to the relaxation of hard caps on cash transfers under President Barack Obama.
Such remittances hit nearly $2.3 billion last year, up from around $1 billion a decade ago, according to a March estimate by U.S.-based research and consulting firm The Havana Consulting Group.
The exit visa decision has been welcomed by Cubans, many of whom don't want to abandon the country and are simply excited they will be able to travel as tourists or to visit family, or just happy to see a longtime symbol of the restrictions on their civil liberties end.
The move has been a public relations boost for the Communist government, giving it another piece of ammunition against critics of its human rights record.
"It is a transcendental measure that destroys false symbols that have been used against us," Omar Valino, vice president of Cuba's writers and artists' union, was quoted as saying by the state-run newspaper Juventud Rebelde.
Officials have been promising travel reforms since the economic changes were first announced, but until Tuesday had said only that it was under "study."
Some say the timing is simply in keeping with Castro's cautious pace — "without pause but without haste" is the pragmatic president's mantra for reform — to keep change from veering out of control.
Others point to increased contacts with a growing community of moderate exiles seeking varying levels of reengagement with their homeland.
It's also suggestive that the reform was announced just a week after ally Hugo Chavez's re-election in Venezuela ensured a continued flow of subsidized oil from that country, and less than a month before U.S. presidential elections.
"The migratory reform has been ready for a while, and they were going to open when it was politically convenient to them," Lopez-Levy said. "There's this idea of doing these things before the (U.S.) election to clear up any doubts: 'This has nothing to do with what happens in November, it has to do with other factors.'"
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Tran Van Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.
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