Cubans line up for passports as travel reform deadline nears

HAVANA Thu Jan 10, 2013 10:22am EST

A traveller stands at the check-in lobby at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

A traveller stands at the check-in lobby at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport October 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Desmond Boylan

HAVANA (Reuters) - With paperwork in their hands and dreams of faraway places in their heads, Cubans waited in long lines this week to apply for passports ahead of a major liberalization of travel policies in place for more than half a century.

Starting on Monday, most will be able to leave the country with just a passport and no need for much-hated exit visas and letters of invitation the communist government imposed in 1961 to slow a mass exodus of people fleeing after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.

The reform was announced in October to address the near universal complaints by Cubans about the expensive and time-consuming paperwork requirements that purposely made it difficult to leave the island.

They were fodder for Castro opponents who charged the Cuban government was a brutal dictatorship that deprived its people of the right to travel and other freedoms.

The passport seekers told Reuters they wanted to reunite with family members, seek more economic opportunity or simply see more of the world from which they have been isolated since the revolution.

SEEKING JOBS, FAMILY

"I'm thinking of going to Venezuela or Angola to work," said Ruben Osorio the 45-year-old proprietor of a small Havana coffee shop who wants to make more money to support his wife and three kids.

He said he has friends in Angola from his time there as a young soldier during Cuba's African military interventions in the 1980s and family in Venezuela.

"No matter how much I work here, no matter how much coffee I can sell, I'm never going to make what I could make in one month in either one of those countries," Osorio said, puffing on a cigarette while standing in the tropical sun.

Like a lot of Cubans, he does not want to stay away forever, which the new law makes possible. It increases the amount of time, from the current 11 months to 24 months, that a Cuban can be out of the Caribbean island without losing rights and property, and allows extensions beyond that.

For Amaryllis Cespedes, 22, the goal is not money, but to see her family again. She wants to go to the Dominican Republic where her relatives have lived for years, particularly to finally meet her 14-year-old brother.

"I don't care (about going anywhere else). I want to see my family and I want to know my brother," said Cespedes, dressed in purple and pink clothes and carrying a fake leopard skin purse.

"I've only seen him in photographs. I want to know him and his country," she said, smiling at the idea of it.

The long lines at passport offices were prompted in part because the price of passports will double to the equivalent of $100 on Monday, but they also testified to the pent-up desires of Cubans to go abroad.

The crowds were such that outside one of the offices, a once-stately old home in Havana's Vedado district, taxi drivers stood at the entrance pitching for fares and a street vendor sold cookies and doughnuts from a cart.

In homes across the street, typists using old-fashioned manual typewriters filled in passport application forms for those willing to pay a small fee.

The new law has been a work in progress, with a notable change this week that Cuban doctors will be allowed to travel after years of prohibition due to government fears they would not return, as thousands did following the revolution.

NATIONAL SECURITY

Even so, the government maintains the right to restrict travel for reasons ranging from national security to economic importance.

Some of the island's best known dissidents have been denied exit visas in the past, but whether that policy will continue is unknown.

"My suitcase continues to be ready for a trip WITH RETURN. Will I be able to go?," tweeted dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who says she has been denied a visa 19 times.

"As with all things concerning reforms in Cuba, we will have to see," said Christopher Sabatini, policy director at the Americas Society in New York.

"The ugliest of the bars may have been lifted, but they've been replaced with a leash - people will only know how far they can go when they are yanked back," he told Reuters.

The bigger hindrances to travel for most Cubans will be the governments of other countries, not their own, and financial constraints.

There are few nations around the world Cubans can visit without needing an entry visa because of their reputation for not returning to Cuba.

While the Cuban government will no longer require that they get a letter of invitation from someone in their destination country, many countries they want to visit will.

And with an average monthly salary of $19, most Cubans do not have the money to travel.

When pressed about how he would pay for an airline ticket to go to Venezuela or Angola, Ruben Osorio talked about selling more coffee and cutting costs before finally admitting it would take a "miracle" to fulfill his dream.

"I sell coffee, I keep selling coffee ... I cut back a little, I don't buy clothes or shoes and it might be that a quirk of fate comes along, a miracle, and it tells me there's a ticket," he said. (Reporting By Jeff Franks and Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by David Adams and Vicki Allen)