Although the Cuban authorities have announced the easing of travel restrictions by dropping the requirement to apply for an exit permit, some of the most anxious to emigrate are learning that they've been excluded from the streamlined process.
In order to prevent an exodus of qualified professionals, the government has decided that anyone with a university degree will have to wait five years before they can emigrate. Migration Law 1312, announced on Oct. 16 and due to take effect on Jan. 14, allows Cuban nationals to travel abroad freely as long as they have obtained the latest version of the passport. They no longer need to go through the onerous process of applying for permission to travel, or to produce a letter of invitation from someone living in their chosen destination. In addition, the authorities have abolished a law that stripped permanent emigrants of their rights and assets.
However, graduates will be barred from immediate travel, in order to "maintain a qualified workforce for the country's economic, social, scientific and technological development," the law says, noting that the waiting period reflects the time needed to "train a substitute." An editorial in the official Communist Party newspaper Granma said the measure was imposed in response to U.S. policies which encouraged a brain drain in Cuba.
Benigno Guerra, 58, has a degree in biology and has been teaching for 38 years.
"After so many years working in education on a measly salary, I'm planning to move to Germany with most of my family. But I'm going to have to be patient and wait for five years to see whether they give me approval to leave," he said.
Guerra says he understands the government's reluctance to allow the best and the brightest to leave the country.
"It's a step based on fear, to protect against the brain drain," he said. "They know that when (the borders) are opened up, most qualified personnel will leave in search of job markets with fairer wages." Jose Fornaris, an independent journalist and head of the Association for Freedom of the Press, said the easing of emigration rules will mean little to most people.
"Free entry to and exit from a country is a right recognized by the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Cuban government signed on Feb. 28, 2008, but still hasn't ratified," Fornaris said.
Of course, Cubans intent on leaving the country are still resorting to home-made boats and rafts to illegally sail to the United States and Central America, whether emigration rules are eased or not.
"It isn't known - and never will be known - how many people have lost their lives crossing the Florida Straits, because there are no normal options for emigrating," Fornaris said.
Osniel Carmona is an independent journalist in Cuba.