HAVANA — "Will the last to leave turn off El Morro," goes a popular Cuban joke. The witticism, which refers to the famous lighthouse in Havana Bay, satirizes the ongoing exodus of Cubans. But over the last few weeks, the joke has taken on a new variation, "Will the last to leave disconnect the Comandante," people say. And indeed, it sometimes seems like ailing Fidel Castro is in line to be the last representative of homus cubanis left on our archipelago.
International travel is a traumatic subject for Cubans. For decades, the possibility of temporarily leaving the country has been a privilege of the politically trustworthy. For the rest of us, the absurd procedures for obtaining permission to travel include endless paperwork, stratospheric prices for each step in the process, and an ideological filter that makes it nearly impossible for government critics to pass through. And of course, those who leave the country without permission are considered traitors -- never to be seen again.
Stories of families separated by this immigration absurdity abound on all sides: parents who never returned to see their children, marriages capsized by the distance, dissidents forced to leave permanently because they were not allowed to take a trip. The late salsa legend Celia Cruz, who spent most of her adult life living in the United States, was not authorized to enter Cuba and say goodbye to her mother when she lay dying in Havana. We have all suffered in one way or another from these restrictions.
In my case, the prohibition on leaving the island has come to feel like a life sentence. In just five years, the Cuban government has refused to grant my requests to travel outside the country 20 times. My drawers are full of letters of invitation, airline tickets expired for never having been used, and even photos of events and ceremonies held abroad where an empty chair sat in my place.
On Oct. 2, we received a bit of hope, when the Official Gazette of the Republic of Cuba published Decree Law 302 introducing a number of changes in the existing travel and immigration restrictions.
People crowded the newspaper stands to buy a copy of the country's highest legislative organ to learn the details. Telephones rang off the hook, especially in those families where there is a relative in exile who hasn't been able to return in years. In addition, those who had long been planning to live in, or visit other parts of the world, felt the time had finally come to make their dreams a reality.
The changes -- scheduled to go into effect on January 14, 2013 -- include the elimination of the so-called Letter of Invitation, a document required from the country to which Cubans wanted to travel. Without this in hand, it was impossible even to submit a request for authorization to travel. As a consequence, people could only travel to countries where they had a friend or family member. The preparation and receiving of the "Letter of Invitation" was a process filled with anguish, and could often cost cash-strapped families over $200.