BUENOS AIRES - There is much to criticize the Cuban government about, but its decision to allow its citizens to travel abroad without the infamous “white card” exit visa, deserves applause.
Since January 14, Cubans are allowed travel abroad, just like citizens of any other democratic country – with a valid passport and a valid visa to enter the country they wish to travel to. They are allowed to remain abroad for up to two years without further documentation, instead of 11 months previously. And finally, Cubans who have migrated to other countries are now allowed to visit Cuba for up to 90 days, including those who asked for political asylum abroad or fled Cuba illegally.
These new travel measures are good news for the Cuban people. And the consequent diplomatic and economic effects are good news for Cuba.
In 1962, the country was suspended from the OAS (Organization of American States), and this suspension was lifted only 50 years later, during the OAS General Assembly of 2009. The only thing that was missing for Cuba to become full-fledged member of the regional organization was the political will to do so, on the part of Cubans as well as on the part of other member countries.
Being a member of the OAS may sound irrelevant, but it is not – the reentry of Cuba into the so-called inter-American system, the oldest international institutional system, paves the way for the country to be a member of the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank), and therefore eligible to receive credit from the largest source of multilateral funding in Latin America. Being in the IDB means almost automatically being a World Bank member, the largest source of funding for development projects in the world.
The same happens with IMF (International Monetary Fund). Cuba being taken into the multilateral funding system will facilitate its access to international capital.
Cuba’s new travel measures will also have a positive effect on private entrepreneurial activity in the island.
In the past two years, since Washington allowed Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba to visit their families as many times as they wanted and to send remittances back to the island without restriction, this monetary flux has turned into an important form of funding for Cubans who are launching their own businesses. Cuba is promoting self-employment as a product of a reform that seeks to transfer hundreds of thousands of people from state payroll to the private sector.
A turning-point for Cuban-American relations
Freedom to travel and economic reform may be seen as part of one same liberalizing strategy, where Latin America and the western world may only applaud.
Because of this, it is pathetic that the first reaction of a Latin American country to Cuban travel reform has been rejection, and even more pathetic because it comes from a government of progressive and popular rhetoric. The day after the new travel measures were implemented in Cuba, Ecuador restricted its policy of entry to Cuban citizens. Until then, Cubans could enter Ecuador freely, without a visa, for a period of up to 90 days. But now, they are forced to present an invitation letter from an Ecuadorian citizen or a legal immigrant resident in Ecuador, who promises to pay for all the expenses of the Cuban visitor, including medical expenses.
It is not surprising that the reaction from Ecuador is isolated. The reaction of Latin American countries should be the opposite, especially among nations that have publicly criticized the restrictions imposed by the Cuban government on its citizens for decades. In effect, these countries should not even require a visa from Cubans who want to visit their territory.
In any case, whatever Latin America does is of marginal importance. The big question is how this will change Cuban-American relations. For the moment, Cubans who travel as tourists to the U.S. must solicit a visa – as is the case for most Latin American citizens. But if the U.S. grants immediate asylum and residency status after a year to any Cuban who asks for political asylum, what is the point in asking for visas from Cubans who arrive in the U.S. as visitors for two weeks? It is much more reasonable for Cubans to enter freely into the U.S. without having to ask for an entry visa, now that their government has given them the freedom to go to the U.S. without an exit visa.
The normalization of visas between both countries, should incidentally, put an end to the privileged status that Cubans have when arriving to U.S. territory. If they arrive asking for political asylum, the U.S. concedes it automatically, and grants them definite residency within a year. This does not make sense if all Cubans can now travel to the U.S.
And if the liberty to travel shows a step further in the economic and political opening of Cuba, isn’t it time for Obama to take a step further and abolish the economic and commercial embargo that still persists as an useless and absurd anachronism of the cold war?