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.