Dispatch

You Can Check Out Anytime You Like...

Why the Cuban government's new law relaxing travel restrictions isn't what it's reported to be.

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.

The even more significant change was an end to the disgraceful exit permit, popularly known as the "White Card." Until last month, we Cubans were among the very few citizens of the world who needed the consent of the Ministry of the Interior to leave our own country. The reasons for the continuation of the policy weren't only political -- at $170 per White Card, the program was an attractive source of revenue for the government.

Following the announcement, the international press reported with great excitement that Raul Castro's regime was opening the national borders. But for Cuban citizens, the joy lasted just about as long as it took to read the 31 pages of the new law.

By the evening Oct. 2, the early critiques of the reform were already emerging. Health care professionals noticed that they were still required to obtain permission to travel. The Cuban government defends travel restrictions for doctors and scientists with the argument that the "brain drain" could take many of them to countries that pay better salaries. Thus, in the newly released law, state control is actually strengthened over the travel of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and even laboratory workers.

The fine print of Decree Law 302 doesn't stop there. The restrictions on leaving are even more severe for other professionals such as teachers and professors. Frightened by the growing loss of personnel in the field of education, Cuban leaders are trying to put a brake on escapes from the classroom. And they are doing it in the way it has always been done, not by paying better salaries or improving working conditions, but by force.

One of the perverse incentives unleashed by this strategy is expected to be enrollment declines for professional, legal, and engineering studies. If students know ahead of time that once they graduate in certain specialties it will be very difficult for them to travel, they will avoid getting degrees in them. A measure intended to fight "brain drain" could generate a decrease in the numbers who aspire to higher education.

Notably absent from the new relaxations are Cuban emigrants. The time allowed for their visits home was increased -- from 60 to 90 days, but the right to reside permanently in the country of their birth has not been returned to them. Repatriation for these people will have to be processed in the Cuban consulate of their country of residence, and will only be authorized in very specific cases, such as terminal illness or others.

Nor will these immigrants who return home be permitted to own property on the island, to buy houses or cars, or to inherit any of these possessions. Under the new law, Cubans around the world will continue to be third-class citizens, who support the economy -- with their remittances -- of a country that doesn't not want them back.

As for the infamous White Card, it's true that Cubans will no longer need an exit permit to travel, but they will still need permission to possess a passport. So, when citizens apply to get this document, they will find out if they are among those who are allowed to cross the national borders or if, on the contrary, they are among the group condemned not to leave. Where once we had to wait for the White Card, now the little blue 32-page pamphlet will have the final word. The "permission to leave" had changed its color and name, but still stands.

So what does this mean for the regime's declared enemies? The dissidents, activists, independent journalists, and bloggers, who were previously unable to travel, will very likely still not be able to do so next year. The crafters of the new law were careful to build in features the government can use to punish its political adversaries with imprisonment on the island. In articles 23 and 25 of the new decree, for instance, we learn that passports can be denied "when reasons of National Defense and Security require it," or "when for other reasons in the public interest as determined by the empowered authorities."

So we shouldn't hold out much hope that in the coming year the Ladies in White, Sakharov Prize Winner Guillermo Farinas, and other members of the opposition will finally be able to accept their international invitations.

I believe it's possible I may hold the sad record of being the person on this planet with the most unused travel visas. My passport is covered in stickers that say I am -- or was -- welcome in a dozen countries. I've left a lot of people waiting in airports.

Although the new law leaves the government the ability to continue to prevent me from accepting those international invitations, I want to believe there is hope. So, I have packed my suitcase, put in some clothes, a pair of shoes, and the image of the Virgin of Safe Journeys given to me by a friend several years ago. On Jan. 14, I will be in my local office to ask for my passport. An official dressed in olive green will tell me yes or no. Meanwhile, my blog, my tweets, my words, will continue to scurry in their various forms through the bars of the absurd travel and immigration laws.

Whatever comes of it, we cannot dismiss the impact these travel and immigration relaxations will have on Cuban society. Much of it won't be good. The new law will increase in the number of Cubans who will live halfway between Madrid and Havana, Buenos Aires and Camagüey, Berlín and Guantánamo -- citizens who will spend the better part of their time outside the island, but maintain their properties here in the hopes of better times. The cleavage of the Cuban population, between those who are politically and economically permitted to have contact with the outside world and those who can't even think of spending the $110 required for a passport, will become sharper.

Travel and immigration reform has proved imperfect, insufficient, and at times frustrating. But in a system controlled so tightly for so many years, any small change can trigger unpredictable consequences. But if there is a saving grace, it's that Cubans know the their pressure and international public opinion have forced the government to relax and reduce the paperwork to enter and leave the country.

Also, the increasingly doddering Fidel Castro is no longer in charge of the national ship and can no longer oppose relaxation of so many of the controls he always maintained with great severity.

Perhaps this is why the jokes on the street suggest a connection between a possible mass migration and the prolonged illness of the Commandante en Jefe. It is no longer Havana's El Morro that will be turned off with the last Cuban to leave, but the prolonged stubbornness of one who condemned us to an island immobility that is due to come to an end.

DOUG COLLIER/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Men in Black

Inside the fashion of Chinese politics.

BEIJING — Much has changed in China over the past decade, from the tens of millions of former peasants who are now members of the middle class, to the Prada, Hermès, and Gucci boutiques that now crowd the malls of Beijing and Shanghai -- but not the fashion stylings of China's top leaders. The single-breasted navy two-button suits, semi-spread-collar white shirts, and unmemorable ties in a Windsor knot remain obligatory. Almost without exception, top leaders still sport iconic jet-black dye jobs, intended to conceal age just as the boxy suits conceal differences in physique. At a time of transition, the Chinese Communist Party is all the more determined to show unity, continuity, and commitment to stability, making sartorial adventurism inappropriate.

If anything, top leaders are even less stylish now. Gone is the only item with personality, the one that might have endeared China's heavyweights to hipsters in Brooklyn's Williamsburg, London's Shoreditch, or Beijing's 798: the huge, square nerd glasses reminiscent of Henry Kissinger that are now de rigueur all over the hipster world. These define Wu Bangguo, since 2002 the second-ranking man in the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body. He will step down this week and take with him the brow-line frames. Before him, former Premier Li Peng, the leader most associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre, wore nearly identical glasses, which meshed strikingly with his bushy eyebrows. Most memorable are the enormous tortoise-shell glasses of the jovial former president, Jiang Zemin. Chinese today view the huge glasses as more old-mannish or, at best, professorial and serious -- certainly not retro chic. Still, it's a shame; the over-the-top frames were all that prevented China's leaders from achieving an utterly unnoticeable look.

Outgoing President Hu Jintao's specs are large, though in a more subtle wire frame. A few of the men likely to reach the Standing Committee when Hu and most of his colleagues step down on Nov. 14 wear smallish, contemporary, very unremarkable frames, but most must have gotten laser surgery, have perfect eyesight, or are wearing contacts. But the absence of nerd glasses, or indeed of any stylish flourish, marks the current leaders as contemporary men rather than holdovers from a previous generation. It also puts the new emperors in the dullest camouflage possible: nine (or seven) nearly identical men in suits.

China's top leaders have been choosing Western business suits over the native-grown Mao suit, or Sun Yat-sen suit as it is known in China (after the founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen), ever since Hu Yaobang, top man in the Communist Party from 1981 until 1987, wore them. China's most reformist leader, Hu tried to bring accountability and transparency to the government, requiring Han Chinese in Tibet to learn Tibetan and even supporting the use of forks instead of chopsticks. So it's no surprise that he was the first major Chinese leader to choose a suit and tie. His liberalism brought his ouster, but the preference for Western dress stuck. As the 1980s and 1990s wore on, fewer and fewer photos depicted leaders wearing the Mao suit. Hu Jintao only deployed it for military parades, and it's unlikely that incoming President Xi Jinping will favor the look, which he might associate with the suffering he and his peers experienced during the Cultural Revolution.

The preference for Western attire is in line with the economic openness that has brought tremendous growth to China. It represents a hand extended to the West, an interest in modernization, an "open for business" sign, an indication that China is eager to rise to the top by accepting much of the prevailing world order. The message is different from that of leaders from countries like India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, who occasionally choose distinctly non-Western dress. "Wearing a Mao suit reminds foreigners too explicitly that they are facing officials of the Communist Party," says a fashion designer in Beijing, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of speaking about top leaders. "Besides," she jokes, "at the end of a meal, you can open the buttons on a Western suit. Mao suits are always worn buttoned up to the collar." (And current leaders, she notes, are somewhat portlier than their predecessors.)

Some Chinese citizens see their leaders' Western dress as representing China's lack of a distinct style and voice on the world stage. An IT salesman whose girlfriend works in fashion PR and who asked to remain anonymous wishes the leaders would wear Chinese clothing, but "unfortunately, they have to appear modern and there is no modern Chinese form of dressing or sense of etiquette." A Beijing resident who runs a business renovating high-end villas, often for government officials, observes that modern China lacks its own personality: "It can only absorb from others, but this also makes us better able to survive and prosper."

High-ranking officials' casual wear also lacks character. When they need to appear one with the masses, a short-sleeve white dress shirt, usually tucked in, functions as the summer uniform. Winter comes with a lumpy navy puffy coat, though the leaders do wear wool overcoats when being officially photographed, especially on the tarmac when landing in foreign countries. Autumn and spring bring a dark, waist-length jacket in some generic synthetic material. This jacket is more notable for all the things that it isn't -- a blazer, a leather jacket, traditional Chinese dress -- than for any cultural associations it does have. Given its cheap material, dumpy cut, and grim color pallet of dull gray or black, this item really does seem to say "everyman."

These uniforms are the safest options. Lack of personality is precisely what Communist Party leaders are going for. Heads of autocratic countries who have dressed in more interesting ways have not been meeting good ends of late. Just ask flamboyant ex-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who favored tailored pinstripe suits paired with loud silk pocket squares, and former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, famous for his shirts with custom prints of the African continent. Even former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a man with more subtle taste, had his name woven into the pinstripes of his bespoke suits, a message that the public must have read as "I pilfer national resources." Disgraced Chongqing Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai, the most colorful Communist Party elite personality since Mao, wore well-cut, three-button suits and favored a very large tie knot that he sometimes even dimpled. These are hardly extravagant sartorial flourishes, but with his charisma, imposing physique, and expressive, handsome face, Bo stood out against the boring backdrop of his colleagues. Like an entrepreneur or Wall Street financier surrounded by dowdy Midwestern middle managers, Bo was pretty enthralling, according to a New York-based consultant who frequently met with him.

Whatever combination of factors brought about Bo's demise, his good looks could not have helped. His appearance was one of many factors that made him appealing to the masses, underscoring his demagogic persona. Still, the citizenry do not find the facelessness of other top figures endearing. Several young Chinese have told me that their leaders dress badly or even in a way that "embarrasses" China. Given the uncontroversial -- if not outright dowdy -- nature of their attire, these reactions seem more linked to the unreachability of the leadership than actual dislike of their dress.

But, ironically, when anyone associated with government does dress distinctively, the reaction -- on the Internet, at least -- is usually outrage. Li Xiaolin, daughter of Li Peng (of the nerd glasses), one of China's most successful businesswomen and delegate to China's legislative body, the National People's Congress, has been criticized for her collection of Chanel, Hermès, and other expensive foreign brands. The outcry over the watch collection of Shaanxi transportation official Yang Dacai has also led to an unofficial ban on expensive watches for anyone in government, thus eliminating one of the few ways an official could express a degree of individuality. "Officials are the main VIPs at all the luxury stores in China," says the Beijing designer, but their spending power must be used on behalf of family members, similar to the way Premier Wen Jiabao's influence brought wealth only for his wife and relatives, and not himself. This speaks to perhaps the main reason officials cannot put on much of a sartorial display: It would be an immediate reminder that official families usually have much greater wealth than their low formal salaries would allow.

There really may be no good option for officials when it comes to style. Given their fragile relationship with the governed and the high-stakes race with colleagues to achieve higher rank -- a race in which success comes from avoiding controversy and building consensus -- the current cloaks of invisibility may be their best choice. Hermès ties or Armani suits would probably invite accusations of graft, while Mao suits seem a dangerous throwback. In the end, it's just better to be boring.

Guang Niu/Getty Images