- Associated Press - Monday, May 7, 2012

HAVANA — After controlling the comings and goings of its people for five decades, communist Cuba appears on the verge of a decision to lift many travel restrictions.

One senior official says a “radical and profound” change is only weeks away.

The 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 continues to limit the travel of doctors, scientists, military personnel and others in sensitive roles to prevent a brain drain.

Other top Cuban officials have cautioned against too much excitement, leaving islanders and Cuba experts to wonder how far Havana’s 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. Those ideas were long anathema to the government’s Marxist underpinnings.

Scrapping travel controls could be an even bigger step, at least symbolically. It also carries enormous economic, social and political risk.

Even half-measures - such as ending limits on how long Cubans can live abroad or cutting the staggeringly high fees for the exit visa that Cubans must obtain just to leave the country - 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 Cubans overseas to avoid forfeiting their residency rights, a fate that has befallen waves of exiles since the 1959 revolution.

It could also bolster the number of Cubans who travel abroad for work, thus increasing earnings sent home in the short term and, ultimately, investment by a new moneyed class.

Scrapping exit controls should win Cuba support in Europe, which improved ties after dozens of political prisoners were freed in 2010.

Mr. Peters and several other analysts said they doubt the new rules would bring about any immediate shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, which includes a ban on American tourism. Those restrictions are entrenched and have 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,” Mr. Peters said.

Cuba-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, said any discussion about immigration reform on the island is a peripheral issue.

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