Raul Castro bets on Cuban travel amid reforms

By Peter Orsi

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

A museum cafeteria worker walks by a photo of Cuba's leader Fidel Castro on exhibit at the Revolution Museum in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Oct. 19, 2012. The rumor mill surrounding the health of Fidel Castro churned anew on Friday, despite a letter from the aging Cuban revolutionary published by state media and denials by relatives at home and in the United States that he is on death's door.

Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press

HAVANA — Cuba seems to be betting that its decision to allow most of its citizens to travel abroad freely will be as good for its economy as it is for its public relations.

The announcement comes as the communist island nation carries out a cautious, limited free market experiment to reform Cuba's inefficient economy, which includes a plan to fire 1 million state workers and allow more entrepreneurship.

Cuba's leaders seem confident that lifting exit visa requirements will not produce an embarrassing exodus. Instead, experts say, a controlled migration might ease the pain of its economic overhaul by providing an outlet for the anticipated surge in unemployed workers and an investment in human capital if Cubans return home with experience in market economies.

The biggest problem with Cuba's layoff plan, "is that there are not enough jobs available in the private sector to absorb these workers," said Paolo Spadoni, a political scientist at Augusta State University in Georgia. "Thus, some of these workers will either leave for good or work temporarily abroad and return to Cuba, in both cases increasing the amount of remittances to the island."

Other Communist-run countries saw similar changes to travel restrictions as reform reshaped their societies. Vietnam did away with its exit and entry visa requirements in 1997, and there are now no limits on citizens traveling overseas except for dissidents deemed a threat to national security.

Citizens of the Soviet Union also once had to go through a long, complicated procedure to leave, but exit visas were formally scrapped in 1993 after the Soviet bloc's dissolution. Russians now must still apply for foreign travel passports, but there are few restrictions on those except for high-ranking intelligence and military officers and employees involved in top-secret defense projects.

Cuba's highly educated but low-paid professionals and academics seem ripe to take off, lured overseas by lucrative jobs after decades of living in a state-dominated economy with virtually no independent industry and an antiquated technological infrastructure.

Under the new provisions taking effect in January, Cubans may stay abroad for two years before forfeiting full citizenship rights; previously the limit was 11 months. Another provision allows Cubans who have emigrated for good the opportunity to apply to return.

Those changes could make it easier for islanders to study or work abroad, returning in theory as valuable contributors to Castro's evolving hybrid economy.

"We are facing something new, a positive step in that doors have been opened in terms of job-training and -formation for the Cuban labor force," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban economist who lectures at the University of Denver. "Yes, the potential for migration is going to increase, but in an optimal scenario for Cuban policy, without reaching destabilizing levels."

But some might call it an act of faith to expect that a Cuban professional, who earns an average of about $20 a month, would be filled with sufficient revolutionary fervor to return from a high-paid job in Europe.

And whether the new Cuban economy will take off remains a key question.

Raul Castro has decentralized industries, expanded private entrepreneurship and farming, legalized home and car sales and is about to enter an experimental phase with medium-size cooperative businesses.

But the state retains a dominant role in all key sectors, and analysts say today's entrepreneurial landscape dotted with what some have dubbed "bonsai businesses" is hardly enough to rescue the economy.

"You let them go for a couple of years ... always under control, and then they come home with a little money saved up," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former government economist turned dissident. "Those who do come back, I don't think they'll bring much with them."

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