However, the remittances from those who stay abroad may make Castro's gamble worthwhile.
While economic migration more typically involves low-skilled labor, in recent years professionals have made up 12 percent of Cuba's outward flow, according to a 2010 study by Havana University historian and sociologist Antonio Aja Diaz.
Money sent home by Cubans living overseas, overwhelmingly in the United States, is already among the island's most important sources of hard currency and growing thanks to the relaxation of hard caps on cash transfers under President Barack Obama.
Such remittances hit nearly $2.3 billion last year, up from around $1 billion a decade ago, according to a March estimate by U.S.-based research and consulting firm The Havana Consulting Group.
The exit visa decision has been welcomed by Cubans, many of whom don't want to abandon the country and are simply excited they will be able to travel as tourists or to visit family, or just happy to see a longtime symbol of the restrictions on their civil liberties end.
The move has been a public relations boost for the Communist government, giving it another piece of ammunition against critics of its human rights record.
"It is a transcendental measure that destroys false symbols that have been used against us," Omar Valino, vice president of Cuba's writers and artists' union, was quoted as saying by the state-run newspaper Juventud Rebelde.
Officials have been promising travel reforms since the economic changes were first announced, but until Tuesday had said only that it was under "study."
Some say the timing is simply in keeping with Castro's cautious pace — "without pause but without haste" is the pragmatic president's mantra for reform — to keep change from veering out of control.
Others point to increased contacts with a growing community of moderate exiles seeking varying levels of reengagement with their homeland.
It's also suggestive that the reform was announced just a week after ally Hugo Chavez's re-election in Venezuela ensured a continued flow of subsidized oil from that country, and less than a month before U.S. presidential elections.
"The migratory reform has been ready for a while, and they were going to open when it was politically convenient to them," Lopez-Levy said. "There's this idea of doing these things before the (U.S.) election to clear up any doubts: 'This has nothing to do with what happens in November, it has to do with other factors.'"
Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Tran Van Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.
Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi
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