The Obama administration offered cautious support for the change, which the U.S. government has called for since the Kennedy administration.
“We obviously welcome any reforms that will allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely,” said Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the State Department.
“This is certainly a step, but I would advise that even with regard to this step, we await further information,” she said. “We need to see how it is implemented.”
The new policy follows other recent reforms by President Raul Castro, who has lifted Cold War-era, Soviet-style prohibitions against computer ownership, Internet use, hotel stays, cellphones, private cars and real estate sales.
“It is a clear improvement in Cuba’s human rights practices,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute who frequently travels to the island to monitor change. “This is not like lifting a speed limit; it changes a set of policies that block millions from seeing their families when they wish.”
The new rules will not affect Americans’ travel to the island, which, because of the 50-year-old U.S. embargo, is limited to Cuban Americans returning for family visits and other U.S. citizens — such as journalists, academics, missionaries, students — who can go on educational or cultural exchanges.
Even with a change in the exit-
visa requirement, Cubans who want to travel abroad still have to obtain a visa from the country they wish to visit. The U.S. government may be hard-pressed to meet the demand of tens of thousands of Cubans who want to leave the island.
“Let’s be honest. Many Cubans who get a visa to the United States will not go back to Cuba,” said Jaime Suchliki, director of the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami. “This is Raul Castro’s way of saying, ‘Look, this isn’t my problem anymore, it’s your problem.’ ”
In Cuba, the strict laws requiring exit visas have led many to risk leaving the island on fragile boats, rafts or inner tubes or to defect while abroad.
Obtaining an exit visa has generally required a marathon trip through the state bureaucracy and payment of hundreds of dollars in fees in a country where an engineer or a doctor makes $30 a month. And at the end of the process, many Cubans are simply denied the visa. Dissidents and other critics of the Cuban government and the Castro leadership are denied permission to travel overseas.
The exit-visa requirement is one of the most widely loathed policies in Cuba, among the elites and ordinary people alike. Few countries require exit visas, and their use is considered a human rights violation.