Of Passports, Emigration, Permits and Chimeras / Roberto Madrigal

A newly issued Cuban passport.

A newly issued Cuban passport.

This week the first Cubans who applied when the Cuban government’s “new migratory policy” went into effect should be getting their passports. We will begin to understand the true possibilities on learning which passports are issued and which denied. And we will see the new selection criteria.

Although one step has been eliminated, the “white card” — as the exit permit was known — the people who decide who will or will not get a passport remain the same. In reality, many years ago only an exclusive group of regime opponents and some professionals were victims of the restrictions on leaving the country. The majority of those who submitted their paperwork completed the process without much problem. But, as usual, no one was sure until they had the paper in their hands, everyone feared being denied the coveted permit. With the new guidelines one link in the chain of fear has been eliminated.

It is true that there have been other changes, relatively favorable, such as extending the time a Cuban can remain outside the country (although as far as I know there is no other country in the world where there is a time limit for how long citizens can remain outside their country without losing their rights, not even Iran) and he or she doesn’t have to produce any document as an excuse to request permission. This, among other cosmetic changes with an eye on income in foreign currency, has widened the eye of the needle, but citizens are still required to go through the needle.

Very few governments have manipulated emigration in such a grotesque way — as an escape valve, as an instrument of repression, or as a weapon of mass unrest — as has Cuba. From the arbitrary separation of families in the early years, through the Camarioca Exodus in 1965, the forced labor of at least two years of farm work for anyone who asked to leave, the end of the “freedom flights” and the release of the political prisoners, the massive asylum in the Peruvian embassy and the subsequent Mariel Boatlift, the Maleconazo of 1994 and the murders of those trying to leave clandestinely or through hijacking boats, to the years-long condition as hostages of the family members of athletes, professionals and those serving on official technical missions abroad, ending with repercussions against all the family members of those who deserted, Cuban migration policy has moved between various shades of terror. And that’s not to mention immigration policy.

In the last fifteen years they have relaxed their fist, and have seen the economic benefits of the emigration-immigration flow, given the material need after the fall of the socialist block and much of the population’s loss of interest in ideology, as well as the loss of the narrative of those in power. We must also consider the collapse of the world economy in the last five years and shadowy international terrorism, which have led many countries to restrict the entry of immigrants to their countries, and to watch over those who visit with greater zeal.

Now, with their brand new passports, Cubans will face the task of applying for visas to leave as tourists. For six decades Cubans have been one of the few people in the world (I dare say the only people), who with their labor cannot earn a currency that has value in the international market. Without tricks, gimmicks or help from family abroad, almost no one can save enough convertible currency to pay for a trip. Knowing this, the rulers pass the hot potato to foreign governments.

Many years ago, when I left the Peruvian embassy with a safe conduct and a passport, and under the Cuban government’s promise that if I obtained a visa from any country I could leave, in the four weeks between that day and my departure through Mariel, along with a constant juggling act to avoid the crowds that surrounded my apartment every day throwing eggs and rotten tomatoes while screaming insults and threats, I took the trouble to make the rounds of as many embassies in Havana as I could. I went to the then West German embassy, the Austrian, Canadian and Swedish. Everyone refused me a visa even though I assured them that it would just be a transit visa and that I had financially solvent family abroad and would not be a burden on their governments.

It got to the point where I was so fed up with his attitude that I asked the Austrian ambassador if there were some cultural or economic accords with Cuban that were so important and so fragile that they had to refuse me a transit visa. He did not answer, he just grimaced with an expression that was almost a commiserative smile. Only the English listened to my case and promised me a visa, which required a second visit I never made, because the police came looking for me to send me out through Mariel.

Clearly things have changed a lot everywhere since then, and many countries have liberalized their awarding of visas to Cubans, but we can already see that after the new measures of the Cuban government, many countries, such as Ecuador, which previously required had no visas for Cubans, have changed their requirements. Now Cubans waving their passports in search of visas, will encounter multiple negatives or excuses to delay or not grant them a visa.

I don’t expect the situation with respect to the United States to change much. Other countries will add new requirements. Eventually, those with letters of invitation, or financial support from some family member or acquaintance, will receive their visas. The rest, it’s very unlikely they will be granted anything and will have to wander from embassy to embassy to realize their that dream of departure could eventually become a nightmare.

But there is hope. Among the few countries who don’t require visas from Cubans, many are in areas devastated by recent wars or famine, such as Botswana, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, Serbia, Haiti and Mongolia, and they will find a soul mate in the Pacific Ocean.

This is the case for the island of Niue, a tiny coral atoll, 2,400 kilometers northeast of New Zealand, with a population of 1,400 inhabitants, with a constitutional monarchy government but associated in almost all respects to New Zealand, where 15% of its population lives, sending remittances — which constitute 40% of the island’s economy — back to their families. It turns out that Niue, for ten years now, has been associated with a major scientific project with New Zealand to develop the cultivation and export of… moringa!

There is no doubt that with this background, Cubans can become a bulwark for the economic and demographic expansion of the small country.

Roberto Madrigal

Translated from Roberto Madrigal’s blog.

31 January 2013