‘Ta Luego a la Tarjeta Blanca: The Exit Visa is on its Way Out

Today a pretty amazing thing happened: Raul Castro made good on a promise to abolish the dreaded exit visa, or Tarjeta Blanca.  Cubans will be able to leave (starting “before January 14, 2013” or as I like to call it, January 13) without acquiring an exit visa.  The exit visa was an excellent way for the state to maintain control not only by denying dissidents the right to leave, but also by rewarding demonstrated loyalty to the state and its one and only political party.

Once Cubans have left, they will now be able to stay 24 months instead of 11 without effectively losing Cuban citizenship.  Cubans will also be able to apply for an extension while abroad.  Prior to this change, not returning after 11 months would result in loss of property, loss of the right to return home, and even if a Cuban in this position did manage to get back in, they would be ineligible for the ration card, housing, use of schools, health care, and any other benefits of being Cuban.

That being said, and this being Cuba we’re talking about, I still have some reservations.

Doctors, military and some other professionals will likely still not be able to leave as they are considered valuable “human capital” in Cuba.  This is an effort to prevent brain drain/the Imperialist US from stealing people that Cuba desperately needs.  I get the argument, as every developing country has to fight brain drain.  But in most of the developing world, promising students go abroad for their education.  In Cuba, the state has educated these people for free, and thus feels a bit more entitled to their talents.  Not to mention, lending out their medical professionals is one of the Cuban government’s chief means of achieving diplomatic goals.  Losing that supply would greatly reduce options for trade and other negotiations.  All that being said, I 100% agree with the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights), which includes the right to freedom of movement, and while I understand why Raul and co. want to do this, it is not in keeping with international human rights law.  And for that matter, neither is almost anything about “Camp Justice” or those fun hearings they’re having in semi-secret this week.  I would recommend creating incentives for Cuba’s highly educated population to return, rather than bans on them leaving in the first place and penalties if they deviate from the schedule for a government-sponsored trip.

Another potential problem with the legislation is that there’s no specific mention that the fees will be gone (as pointed out by the NYT), and a normal human would assume that if a visa is no longer necessary, the accompanying fees would also disappear.  But we’re talking about Cuba here, so I wouldn’t be shocked if the cash shortfall is made up in some other asinine charge.  The Guardian estimates the fee to be 150 USD, as does CNN who adds that obtaining the requisite invitation letter from the host country can tack on another 200 USD. Adding to that are the ominously vague “changes” to the legal requirements to obtain a passport as a Cuban that are forthcoming, according to el Granma, the state newspaper of Cuba.

Another concern is that if this works as the Cuban government would like it to, a system of remisas, or remittances, will be strengthened.  Sending money back to Cuba is good for those in the country needing access to everything from food basics like meat to luxury goods like ipads.  But this creates a huge strain on those sending back the remittances, as the standard of living differs greatly in the US, a place where citizenship does not entitle anyone to food, housing, or a college education.

Finally: there is the other side of the equation.  Us.

I absolutely believe that the US is going change its famous Wet Feet, Dry Feet policy.  For those unaware, as soon as Fidel, Raul, Che and Camilo came crashing down from Las Sierra Madres on New Year’s Day 1959, the United States started the Two Wet Feet policy.  This meant that the US would offer legal residency after a year to any Cuban, whether they made landfall, swam to the other side of Guantanmo Bay or were plucked out of the Florida Straits.  During the Special Period (after the Soviet Union fell in 1989 up until very recently), many Cubans took advantage of this.  As a special love note to the US and their open arms, Fidel encouraged the dregs of society to make the journey and allegedly opened the prisons so they could join them.  In 1994, when the US realized this was getting a bit nutty, they compromised (AKA were terrified of the numbers as well as the political implications) with the Two Dry Feet policy, which means that those found in the water go back to Cuba, and those who make it to land can stay.  They US government has also limited entry to 20,000 Cubans a year, and offers a much simpler political asylum process for Cubans (which involves no incarceration.)  This is also around the time when the US bulked up their defenses to Guantanamo.  Not to defend themselves from the Cuban military mind you, but rather to make it more difficult for swimmers to show up with those dry feet of theirs.

While a policy change of that nature would be rough on Cubans, I have long felt the policy was wildly unfair, especially to Caribbean neighbors in Haiti.  As a country we are totally moved by the nation’s plight after the earthquake, but our government remains unmoved in its immigration policy.  And let’s not forget that Haiti was the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere even before the quake.   The US (and the rest of the West) has certainly played a role in that, from day 1 when the world felt so threatened by the “First Black Republic” that we took our sugar interests to Cuba and eventually the Dominican Republic (and Puerto Rico post-1959), right up to turning the other way through Papa Doc, Baby Doc, and a run of corruption, violence and oppression that would make Saddam Hussein blush.

Anyway, my hope is that if the US revokes or significantly alters the Two Dry Feet policy, the world will hold our government to task on this, and it could force the issue of el bloqueo.

What do you think?  Can we trust Raul?  Will the US step up to the plate or get slimey?  and of course, there is the fun guessing game of who will win the US presidential election in November and what they will do about Cuba once they are sworn in.

Oh and hat tip to Kade for catching this first thing today.