HAVANA — After controlling the comings and goings of its people for five decades, communist Cuba appears on the verge of a momentous decision to lift many travel restrictions. One senior official says a "radical and profound" change is 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 over-excitement, leaving islanders and Cuba experts to wonder how far Havana's leaders are willing to go.
In the past 18 months, Castro has removed prohibitions on some private enterprise, legalized real estate and car sales, and allowed compatriots to hire employees, ideas that were long anathema to the government's Marxist underpinnings.
Scrapping travel controls could be an even bigger step, at least symbolically, and 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.