- 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.

“The kind of changes I’m interested in are not about immigration,” said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“I’m interested in changes that affect fundamental freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.”

U.S. officials skeptical

U.S. officials said they have been anticipating an announcement for months, noting there has been such talk as far back as August.

They remain skeptical that the Castro regime is truly committed to such reform.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States “would certainly welcome greater freedom of movement for the Cuban public.”

Rumors of the exit visa’s imminent demise have circulated for years.

The whispers became open chatter last year after the Communist Party endorsed migration reform at a crucial gathering. Mr. Castro dashed those hopes in December, saying the timing wasn’t right and the “fate of the revolution” was at stake.

Mr. Alarcon’s comments, made in an interview published in April, revived hope 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 a French journalist.

“We are working toward a radical and profound reform of emigration that in the months to come will eliminate this kind of restriction.”

However, Vice Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez last week told exiles not to set their hopes too high, vowing the government would maintain some travel controls as long as it faced a threat from opponents in Washington.

Havana residents say they are anxiously waiting to see what the government does.

“The time has come to get rid of the exit visa,” said Vivian Delgado, a shop worker.

“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.”

Domingo Blanco, a 24-year-old state office worker added, “It’s as if one needed to ask to leave one’s own house.”

Many Cubans are reluctant to talk about their own experience with the exit visa. One woman named Miru, who has been trying to leave Cuba since 2006, shared her story on the condition her full name not be used for fear that speaking with a foreign journalist could get her in trouble.

“This has been a very long process,” she said of her odyssey, which began when her husband defected from a medical mission in Africa and sought asylum in the United States.

First, she had to get a letter releasing her from her job at a government ministry. That process took five years.

Three months ago, she applied for an exist visa but has yet to receive an answer. Officials say her case is complicated but will not give a specific reason for the delay.

“I am very anxious to see my husband again,” she said.

Cuba’s Berlin Wall

The exit controls are a Cold War legacy of Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union.

They were instituted in December 1961 to counteract a brain drain, as hundreds of thousands of doctors and other professionals fled, many for new lives in Florida. That was three months before the U.S. embargo barring most trade with the island went into full effect.

Over the years, it has become much easier for Cubans to obtain permission to travel, though many are still denied. It is particularly hard to take children out of the country.

The exit visa’s $150 price tag is a small fortune in a country where salaries average about $20 a month. In addition, the person the traveler wishes to visit must pay $200 at a Cuban consulate.

Those who leave get only a 30-day pass, and the cost of an extension varies by country. In the United States, the fee is $130 a month. Those who stay abroad more than 11 months lose the right to reside in Cuba. Before 2011, any property would automatically go to the state.

“The Cuban government has monetized every part of the humiliating process of coming and going,” said Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba expert and author of “Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington.”

“Getting out means running a gantlet, and it is all based on how much humiliation you can endure, and by the time they end up in Miami, people are filled with hate and dreams of revenge.”

It is unclear how emigration reform will affect dissidents, who are routinely denied permission to leave and could still find themselves on some form of no-exit list.

Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, writing in the New York Times, called the exit controls “our own Berlin Wall without the concrete … a wall made of paperwork and stamps, overseen by the grim stares of soldiers.” She has been denied travel papers at least 19 times by her own count.