by Fabiola Santiago, FSantiago@MiamiHerald.com
Once again, the Cuban government is vying to unleash another mass exodus on the United States.
With the announcement Tuesday in the official newspaper Granma of the elimination of the government-issued exit visa required for Cubans to travel abroad, the Castro dictatorship is following a familiar script. Providing an escape route to the growing opposition and the discontented has been a superb survival strategy for more than five decades of totalitarian rule.
In 1980, Fidel Castro announced the opening of the port of Mariel to the disaffected who had stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana desperate to leave the island, and he sent the message to exiles in Miami that they could pick up relatives as well. Some 125,000 Cubans — among them criminals and mental patients Castro forced on the boats — arrived in South Florida in five months. In the summer of 1994, Castro announced that authorities wouldn’t stand in the way of Cubans seeking to leave and looked the other way as people built homemade rafts. Some 35,000 sailed across the Florida Straits, and after months-long stays in tent-city camps set up by the Clinton administration in Guantanamo, they were processed and flown here.
And now comes Raúl Castro, re-inventing his brother’s sure-footed strategy to send the enemy into exile — and relieve the pressure on the government to undertake meaningful reforms — by making it easier for the disenchanted masses to leave while retaining control of who travels. While this may seem a blessing to a people without hope, when Cuba talks “immigration reform” and “new travel measures,” only one thing is certain: There will be major — and unfavorable — implications for the United States, particularly for South Florida.
Clues to Cuba’s intentions are in the details of the new rules. They exempt medical professionals, scientists, and other desirable skilled would-be emigrants, and the military. They sweeten the offer to the Revolution-bred masses by assuring them that they would be welcomed back to Cuba and could retain their resident benefits as long as they return every two years. In other words, travel to the mythical Miami, city with streets paved in exile gold; become a resident after a year under the Cuban Adjustment Act and be eligible for U.S. benefits; send thousands of dollars and goods to Cuba; come vacation in Varadero — and even collect a few pesos (those $20-a-month Cuban pensions), rent or sell your home and keep your old Lada.
“This is a way to get rid of Cuba’s population because they cannot meet the economic needs of the people,” says Andy S. Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “They do it with bad intentions. They know that the young people of Cuba are looking for any opportunity to leave the country…. As a young woman told me in Santiago de Cuba, ‘Anywhere but here.’”
It’s also no accident that the new travel rules are timed to go into effect on Jan. 13, days from the U.S. presidential inauguration. No matter who wins the election, Cuban officials will be able to peddle their brand of truth to the Cuban people — particularly the disenchanted youth — that it’s not their government prohibiting travel, but the imperialist monster to the North. Another ploy to force their way into the American agenda.
If the Cuban government had anything but its prolonged survival in mind, that loathed exit-visa requirement dubbed by Cubans “the white card” would never have existed. Cubans like independent journalist Yoani Sánchez would not have to ask for permission to attend a professional conference or to accept a prize even as the servile privileged, like Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela travel as they desire. They would have been free to travel and return to their homeland, no big deal.
But travel control has always been used as a weapon of submission: Support the government or claim you’re apolitical and get permission to travel. The new measures also control, but via passports. “Looks like the Cuban government reserves the right to decide who leaves the country with the requirement that they have to update passports,” tweeted Rosa María Payá, the daughter of the late dissident leader Oswaldo Payá. She has not been allowed to travel to the Vatican to meet with the Pope, despite his official invitation. “Although I have a passport, it wouldn’t do me any good with the new law,” blogger Sánchez also tweeted. “I would have to ask for another passport, subject to denial.” They know their government well.
Language in the new travel rules note exemptions for “defense and national security,” meaning that dissidents remain as they are — without any rights. Because anything short of real change is only another tactic for a regime gasping for fresh air — and survival dollars from the United States.