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Cubans eager to try new law easing travel rules

By PETER ORSI and ANDREA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press Published: January 12, 2013

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.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement calling the exit visa a “major impediment” to Cubans' travel and welcoming its demise.

“We cannot predict if the change in exit visa requirements will lead to a change in migration patterns from Cuba,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “We continue to encourage people not to risk their lives by undertaking dangerous sea journeys and we note that most countries still require that Cuban citizens have entry visas.”

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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