On Tuesday the Cuban government announced that on January 14, 2013 it will remove one of the most visible and anachronistic symbols of the Castro regime: prohibitions on its citizens traveling outside the island. The question—as with all the recent reforms announced in Cuba—will be how much and how quickly. Little discussed though is also what it will mean for the United States’ own perverse and anti-democratic policies governing U.S. travel to the island.
The change, promised by Raul Castro earlier this year, lifts the 50-year requirement that Cuban citizens have a government-issued exit visa to travel abroad. It’s worth stopping here briefly to reflect on how bizarre the policy is in today’s hemisphere. Imagine any other democratic government autocratically selecting which of its citizens can leave its borders. And the Cuban regime exercised this rule with repressive precision, regularly denying exit visas to political opponents including denying independent blogger Yoani Sanchez an exit visa 20 times in the last five years.
Despite the expectations it raised in Cuba, it’s unlikely that the change will actually allow full freedom of travel. The announcement promised that all that will be necessary to travel overseas is a Cuban passport and—in cases where required—a visa from the country to be visited. But a closer look between the lines reveals that the Cuban government will still retain the right to deny individuals from leaving the country for several reasons including for “national security”—a loophole large enough to permit the Cuban government to prevent democratic opponents (which it often labels as threats to national security) from leaving its borders. In short, no different from what exists now.
Yet as with all things on U.S.-Cuban relations, the bizarreness doesn’t just exist on one side of the Florida Straits. U.S. policy toward Cuba remains frozen in time as well, and with special exceptions and status not enjoyed by other countries. For one, the U.S. maintains a travel restriction that prevents U.S. citizens from traveling to Cuba without a U.S. government license. (Sound familiar?) Cuba is the only country under which there is a specific law that denies U.S. citizens the right to travel to a specific country.
Come January, if—and this is admittedly a big if—the Cuban government really does liberalize travel for its own citizens, will the U.S. follow suit and liberalize travel for its own citizens? Actually, come to think of it, why is the U.S.—a country that prides itself as a democracy—even waiting?
Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. His Twitter account is @ChrisSabatini