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Cubans to be allowed more freedom to travel

HAVANA, May 10 – Cubans will be allowed to travel abroad as tourists for the first time in more than 50 years, Raul Castro\’s regime, in a move that could rock long-strained US-Cuban ties.

"Study a policy that allows Cubans living in the country to travel abroad as tourists," read one of the bullet-points on a government document listing 313 reforms approved at a rare Communist Party Congress mid-April, released Monday.

Cuba gave no immediate concrete details of the plan in its release.

But if and when it is implemented — it could drop a bomb on US-Cuban relations, frozen and going nowhere fast as Cuba ignores US calls to open its economy and political system.

That is because for decades, the United States has granted any Cuban who reaches US soil immediate residency.

Since the 1990s, any Cuban picked up at sea trying to reach the United States illegally has been returned to Cuba but those who make it to US soil still get immediate US residency — unlike those fleeing any other country in the world.

The US policy — nicknamed "wet foot, dry foot" — is seen by some in the US government as a chance to embarrass Havana, as Cubans unhappy with life in the Americas\’ only communist country vote with their feet.

Havana long has claimed the US policy encourages dangerous attempts by Cubans to cross the shark-infested Florida Straits illegally, risking life and limb.

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 Now, Cuba appears to be threatening a potential US-bound stampede of thousands among the more than 11 million population — every one of whom is eligible for US residency if they travel just an hour by plane to the US state of Florida, analysts said.

The Cuban document gave no further detail on the travel policy or a date at which it would be implemented, but was seen as an official decision by the Castro regime to authorize foreign travel as part of a series of landmark reforms.

Though travel abroad is not banned outright, there is a de facto ban; Cubans who want to leave the Caribbean island need to jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops, including receiving an invitation letter from abroad.

Then a $150 fee is required for an exit request, which may be denied. Travel abroad has been limited to 30 days, and the paperwork authorizing foreign travel amounts to around $400 — unthinkable for most Cubans, who earn about $20 a month.

Under the current system, any Cuban who fails to return after 11 months can be declared a "deserter" and lose any possessions in Cuba.

Up to now, travel outside Cuba has been limited mainly to artists, scholars, athletes, and a small number of business people.

In the wake of the 1959 revolution, the Cuban government gave tourist exit visas to exemplary workers who were rewarded with travel to former Soviet bloc nations in Eastern Europe.

 Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this practice has been largely curtailed.

The policy shift is part of a series of reforms announced by President Raul Castro to give a jolt to Cuba\’s crippled economy, ostensibly by introducing elements of private enterprise without abandoning socialist principles.

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In other significant changes, Castro\’s regime says Cubans will be allowed to buy and sell automobiles or homes, and bank loans are to become more readily available.

Around 90 percent of Cubans own their homes or pay modest rent to the state. Those who are homeowners pay no taxes on the property but cannot sell their homes.

Some Cubans get around this through a home exchange called "permuta" in which two homeowners agree on a swap. This has led to an underground market in which large sums of money can be exchanged for property deals.

Similarly, cars can be sold by private parties only with government permission or if they were made before the revolution. As a result, there is a vast market for 1950s-era US-made automobiles such as Buicks and Cadillacs.

Another reform calls for the possible liquidation of money-losing state-owned enterprises, if they are recognized with "recurrent financial losses, insufficient… means and the impossibility to respond to contractual obligations."

Another foresees the creation of cooperatives in some sectors aimed at spawning small private companies.

Still another is aimed at changing contract practices for Cubans who work abroad as part of government deals; but details there were still sketchy.

Cuba is also seeking to decentralize its agricultural production, hoping to boost production in a country where 80 percent of foods are imported.

Raul Castro, 79, took over from elder brother Fidel as head of the ruling Communist Party during April\’s Congress. He assumed the responsibilities of president in 2006 due to his brother\’s illness.

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The April gathering saw Castro\’s reforms rubber-stamped but disappointed those hoping he might rejuvenate an old guard comprised of many one-time revolutionaries now in their late 70s or 80s.


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