A new law went into effect on Monday ending the requirement for Cuban citizens to have a government permit and an invitation letter from abroad when applying for a passport. With anticipation growing since the measure was first announced last October, thousands of Cubans formed lines at consulates throughout Havana, including the U.S. Interest Section, to apply for foreign visas.
The new law is not likely to result in a mass exodus of Cubans off of the island, however. The government can still deny passport requests by those deemed risks public safety or national defense. It can also limit travel by professionals considered vital to Cuba, including military officers, scientists and world-class athletes. Still, the end of the unpopular exit visa—in place since 1959—is a major reform of the regime’s stringent travel policy. "There is a palpable concern among some government officials about this process of reform getting a little out of control, that it's slipping out of their hands," says Christopher Sabatini.
Many foreign governments are watching Cuba closely, to see how the law will play out. "We will see if this is implemented in a very open way, and if it means that all Cubans can travel," said Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. One of the first Cubans in line to apply for a visa on Monday morning was dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who says she has been denied an exit visa 20 times in recent years.
In addition to doing away with the exit visa, the law also increases the amount of time Cubans can spend abroad without losing residency rights at home, from 11 months to two years. The move is believed to be an attempt to increase the flow of remittances, which have become a lifeline for Cuba’s ailing economy.