A man fills out forms at a regional office of the Direction of Immigration and Nationality in Havana, Cuba, on Oct. 16, 2012. Cuba will allow citizens to travel abroad without first obtaining exit permits, a key reform of President Raul Castro. (ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/EPA)

The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it will ease its highly restrictive travel laws in January, allowing many Cubans to go abroad without obtaining a hard-to-get exit visa.

The announcement in the Communist Party newspaper Granma marks a major shift in migration policy for the Havana government, which for more than 50 years has imposed tight controls on who leaves the island and how long Cubans may remain abroad without losing their citizenship benefits.

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.

According to the notice published Tuesday, Cubans will no longer have to present a letter of invitation to travel abroad, and when they leave, they will have to show only their passport and a visa from the country they are traveling to. The rules will take effect Jan. 13.

The government also said that it would allow Cubans to remain outside the country for 24 months before they risk losing their residency and their rights to state-provided housing, health care and schooling. Currently, they must return home within 11 months.

There is, however, a catch.

“The update to the migratory policy takes into account the right of the revolutionary State to defend itself from the interventionist and subversive plans of the U.S. government and its allies,” the government said. “Therefore, measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful.”

What this means: Engineers, scientists, doctors, athletes, performers, pilots, military officers and others who have been educated by the revolution and are considered too valuable to lose will probably still be required to get exit visas.

Emigration and brain drain

The Cuban government has long complained about U.S. immigration policies that encourage a brain drain from Cuba — granting immediate residency, work permits and a quick path to U.S. citizenship to any Cuban who makes it to the shores of the United States, under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. (Cubans intercepted at sea are returned to Cuba, but those who make it to land are granted asylum.)

U.S. policy makes emigration especially enticing for Cuban doctors. The Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program allows Cuban doctors and other health workers who are overseas to enter the United States immediately as refugees.

“This is a major step, long in coming and long demanded by Cubans,” said Julia Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The move is consistent with Raul Castro’s presidency — slow to come but essential to building a more open society.”

“Perhaps if the U.S. stops its policy of inducing Cuban doctors to defect, they, too, will enjoy the same freedoms. But for now at least, a political and ideological icon of the past has been eliminated,” she added.

Geoff Thale, a program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, said it remains unclear which categories of professionals will continue to need exit visas or how many individuals will be affected. And, he noted, “the Cuban government still maintains the rule that citizens who live abroad for an extended period of time can lose property and other citizenship rights."

On wait-and-watch mode

Cuba watchers and independent voices on the island generally applauded the partial lifting of travel restrictions but said they wanted to see how the government implemented the changes.

“The impact of this is big, because we Cubans have a desire to travel, just like everyone else,” said Kirenia Nunez of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission. “But for many it was only a dream.”

Many Cubans are waiting to see how the new regulations work in practice, Nunez said.“Who will be able to travel? How easy will it really be?”

The anti-government blogger Yoani Sanchez has repeatedly been denied an exit visa to travel aboard to attend a conference or receive an award. Sanchez tweeted Tuesday that she is both optimistic and wary. She said she would try to travel as soon the new policy was in effect.

The Obama administration has made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit their native land and to send more money to Cuba to support relatives. Restrictions on other Americans wanting to travel to Cuba remain mostly in place.

Some U.S. legislators are pushing to hold down the number of Cuban Americans going to the island and to limit the amount of money they send, saying that the funds and travel are propping up the Communist government led by Raul Castro and, before him, by his brother Fidel.