- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 1, 2012

HAVANA (AP) — After controlling its citizens’ comings and goings for five decades, Cuba appears on the verge of a momentous decision to end many travel restrictions, with one senior official saying a “radical and profound” change is weeks away.

That comment, by Parliament Chief Ricardo Alarcon, has residents, exiles and policymakers abuzz with speculation that the much-hated exit visa could be a thing of the past, even if Raul Castro’s government still carefully limits the travel of doctors, scientists, military personnel and others in sensitive roles.

Other top Cuban officials have cautioned against over-excitement, most recently at a weekend teleconference designed to bridge the gap with Cuban emigrants, leaving islanders and Cuba experts to wonder how far Havana’s aging leaders are willing to go.

In the past 18 months, Mr. Castro has removed prohibitions on some private enterprise, legalized real estate and car sales, and allowed compatriots to hire employees — ideas that were long anathema to the government’s Marxist underpinnings. But scrapping travel controls could be an even bigger step, at least symbolically, and it carries enormous economic, social and political risk.

Even half measures such as cutting staggeringly high visa fees or ending limits on how long Cubans can live abroad would be significant.

“It would be a big step forward,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute. “If Cuba ends the restrictions on its own citizens’ travel, that means the only travel restrictions that would remain in place would be those the United States imposes on its citizens.”

The move would open the door to increased emigration and make it easier for those overseas to avoid forfeiting their residency rights, a fate that has befallen waves of exiles since the 1959 revolution. It also could bolster the number of Cubans who travel abroad for work, increasing remittances in the short term and investment by a new moneyed class in the long.

Mr. Peters and several other analysts said they doubted the new rules would bring about any immediate shift in Washington’s Cuba policies, including a ban on American tourism, which are entrenched and enjoy the backing of powerful Cuban-American exiles.

“I don’t think it would lead to a drastic change in U.S. policy, but an accumulation of human rights improvements could lead to an incremental change,” he said.

Rumors of the exit visa’s imminent demise have circulated on and off for years. The whispers became open chatter last spring after the Communist Party endorsed migration reform at a crucial gathering — only for Mr. Castro to dash those hopes in December, saying the timing wasn’t right and the “fate of the revolution” was at stake.

Mr. Alarcon’s comments in an interview published in April then revived hopes nonetheless that a bold move is coming.

“One of the questions that we are currently discussing at the highest level of the government is the question of emigration,” he told French journalist Salim Lamrani. “We are working toward a radical and profound reform of emigration that in the months to come will eliminate this kind of restriction.”

But Saturday, Vice Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez told exiles not to set their hopes too high, vowing the government always would maintain some travel controls so long as it faced a threat from enemies in Washington.

Havana residents say they are on the edge of their seats waiting to see what the government does.

“The time has come to get rid of the exit visa,” said Vivian Delgado, a 45-year-old shopworker. “It’s absurd that as a Cuban I must get permission to leave my country, and even worse that I need permission to come back.”

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