Have passport, will travel under new Cuban law

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They didn't jump for joy, but they didn't exactly pooh-pooh it, either: Cubans got their first taste of a reform letting them travel abroad without a reviled and costly exit visa.

As a vestige of the Cold War era vanished and most Cubans gained a long-sought right for the first time in 50 years, some called it the most far-reaching of changes President Raul Castro has undertaken since taking over from his ailing brother, Fidel, in July 2006.

But don't expect a rush for the door.

People here earn on average $20 a month. But an airline ticket to the Cuban magnet of Florida costs at least $500, and Cubans still need visas to get into other countries, even if they no longer need one to leave the communist island, or a letter of invitation from people they want to see.

And on the first day the law came into effect, large crowds were notably absent from passport offices or embassy consulates.

But blips of relief, there were. Marta Piloto, a 50-year-old retiree, said she was delighted over the prospect of visiting her mother in North Carolina.

"This is the best thing Raul Castro has done. Now you can go wherever you want and come back whenever you want. Before, my relatives had to come here and see me," Piloto said.

Skeptics remained wary of the government, however, and wondered if the new travel freedom was for real.

It had already been enforced selectively since some people such as sports stars and ranking Communist Party members are not allowed to leave the Americas' only Communist country.

Until now, exit visas were granted in haphazard fashion, with no explanation given when an application was turned down.

Even under the new reform, the fee for getting a passport was doubled to $100 -- a small fortune for most Cubans.

Dissident award-winning blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has been repeatedly denied permission to leave Cuba, went to a passport office to apply for one after the reform, and was told it will be ready in two weeks.

"I asked them if I will be able to travel, and they said yes. But I will believe it when I get on the plane," Sanchez told AFP.

And Guillermo Farinas, a prominent dissident who has won the European parliament's Sakharov human rights prize, said that two government officials visited his home to tell him that if he would be allowed to travel if he applied for a passport.

"These were the same officials who in 2010 told me that I could only leave if I never came back," Farinas said, adding that he would update his travel documents in the hope that "some group invites me and pays for my travel because I do not have any money."

The US State Department said it welcomed any reform that allows Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely, "which is obviously a right that's provided to everyone under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

But spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was too soon to tell if more people would now get the chance to travel abroad.

Monday was a business as usual day at the US consulate, a diplomatic source said. Hundreds of people showed up to apply for tourist, business or other visas, but they all had pre-existing appointments, the source said.

Havana's airport looked no busier than usual, nor did travel agencies or the consulates of Spain, Mexico and Canada -- countries which receive many Cuban emigrants.

Cubans have long been separated from relatives living in exile. About one in six Cuban nationals lives abroad -- around a million Cubans and Cuban Americans live in Florida alone.

The reform eliminates messy red tape for those among the two million or so Cubans living abroad who want to visit the island, including athletes and others who defected while overseas.

The exit visas used to cost up to $200.

Rights groups slammed the previous system for impeding Cubans' basic freedom of movement, although the government has ended several unpopular restrictions since 2006 as it tinkers with economic reforms.

The United States said it planned no change in its policy toward Cuban migrants.

Under a policy dating to the Cold War, the United States still grants any Cuban who reaches US soil legal residency on request. No such US policy exists for nationals of any other country.

Despite travel restrictions in place since the 1960s, Cubans have emigrated illegally in droves, often using rickety boats to embark on dangerous sea voyages to reach nearby Florida.

Over the weekend, the US Coast Guard caught and repatriated 46 Cubans in four boats that were stopped near the Florida Keys.

Around two million Cubans have left the country in the last half century. The population of the island stands at 11.2 million.

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