Is Now The Time To Eliminate the Travel Permit? / Ernesto Morales Licea

The question has been going around and around in my mind, with a subtle persistence, since I found our recently that for the eighth time in three years the Cuban government has denied Yoani Sanchez an exit permit.

For those unaware of the Cuban reality, let me clarify: This country of ours demonstrates, today, one of the most backward and arbitrary travel permit systems that can be found anywhere in the world. A system expressly designed, without failures or slip ups, to endlessly impede any personal effort to come to know another country, and, at will and without any effort at all, to impede the travel of an “uncomfortable” citizen.

This is one of those points where my socialist Cuba does not admit moderation, pros or cons, or lukewarm analysis: it is an official aberration, that we deliberately crush point 2 of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Every person has the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return to their country.”

There are two possibilities: either we Cubans cannot count ourselves as human beings, and if so this prerogative does not apply to us; or, I don’t know how else to say — what other words to use — to stand in any forum, before any international competition, and categorically deny that Cuba violates any human rights.

In the endless arsenal of terminology and “bureaucratese” to leave Cuba, I think there is not other evidence more flagrant in the authoritarian will of the system, than the so-called “white card,” which is popular parlance for the Permission to Leave granted by the Department of Immigration and Foreigners.

A White Card because, apparently, that is a complete description of it: a sheet of paper where the Government concedes the questions and with immense grace allows you to leave the country. Temporarily or permanently — “definitively” as the latter is called.

So great are the obstacles to be overcome, so important the privilege of that card, that more than a few people, after obtaining one, make an offering to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre in Santiago de Cuba, a devout promise for a favor granted. The Patron Saint knows what that fragile sheet represents.

This Permit to Leave is the exclusive patrimony of the Department of Immigration. They grant it, they deny it. There are no ways to access the oracular voice that pronounces the Yes or the No. Although it is an open secret that the institution which, in these matters, gives the last word is: State Security.

The citizen exhausts himself in the hundreds of suffocating procedures, collects such a large number of letters and certificates that, with so much paper, it is an attack on the permanence of the forests; and in the end… he never knows if all his effort and hours of waiting for officials makes any sense, because the white card is never discussed. When it is denied, there is no explanation.

Now, looking at this through the lens of the new reality that, it seems, is starting to spread across the Island, I think my question takes on a different meaning. Is this the precise moment to put out to pasture this monstrosity, this Cuban immigration system?

And I clarify that with this approach, I only pretend to assume for a second the logic of those who erected the white letter as a compulsory procedure. Otherwise, my question would be disingenuous: there should never have existed such a violation of our individualities.

But looking through the lens of power, we can analyze what this prerogative, this faculty that the Government claims for itself to decide who leaves this country, as if it were a private plantation. Why, then? Because, in the nation as we have it today, I don’t believe there is anything they were trying to show the world, by establishing this Exit Permit.

What other purpose can they have to deny a human being the right to travel freely, except to prevent the mass exodus that would lead the world to suspect the truth behind the social paradise?

Or to put it more simply, at some point the white card must have fulfilled an ideological objective: preventing the testimony of those who abandoned the Island from destroying the Revolutionary myth of a united and happy Cuba. It was the same principle of those who strafed the Berliners who chose to tackle the wall and cross into West Germany. But let’s be clear: do we have, today, a mentally challenged world, incapable of reasoning?

After seeing that in 1980 ten thousand people took refuge in the Peruvian embassy; after the Rafter Crisis when young people chose the sea and the jaws of the sharks rather than the reality they suffered at home; after hundreds of thousands of Cubans chose international visa lotteries, Spanish citizenship, and the legal loopholes that let them escape this Caribbean island… In truth, what is the use of the iron Exit Permit? What hidden truth and illusion does it sustain?

None, save to prove clearly the militaristic character of the State that decides who will escape the fence, and how, and who will grow old within it.

However, now our leaders have added and subtracted points, now they have placed in the balance of a benefit-cost ratio, for example, repressing peaceful opponents with prison. Now that they have also launched a cry for help for the rusty national economy, would now not be the perfect time to rid themselves of the political cost involved, nationally and internationally, of not letting Cubans travel freely throughout the world?

I believe letting the white card evaporate, eliminating the steel barriers, and allowing Cubans to have the same opportunities to travel as the rest of the free citizens of the world, would begin to solve a specific problem: permanent — “definitive” — emigration.

Why do Cubans leave their country forever? Why do they “desert” (another aberration of terminology)? Those athletes, doctors, artists, who leave to settle permanently in other countries. Elementary: Because it is so difficult to leave the country, they must seize the opportunity. Now or never.

But the Jurassic apparatus aside, I am convinced that the vast majority of Cubans would choose to travel, to work for a time outside of Cuba, raise capital and, then what? Take advantage of the opportunity to spend that money in their own country, among their family and friends.

Like so many Mexicans do, who cross the border to earn a living however they can; as the South Americans do to find work in Europe, while leaving their family in their birthplace: returning to invest or spending their earnings elsewhere.

We all know that a serious percentage of the national economy is supported by… Whom? The exiles. The emigrants. The just under two million Cubans who have scattered across the world. So what would be the impact if those with capital could enter and leave the country, like other citizens with money, they could get on a plane?

Finally, I believe that there could be no stronger evidence of real change, verifiable, in the way the country is run, no better way to improve national opinion, than to remove these travel barriers. Cubans would start to feel respected by their government. They would start to believe in a will to find solutions beyond permits to run a barber shop, or depriving them of their jobs. And they would start to plan their lives not according to whether or not they will leave the island forever, but how they will come to know other countries, make a living with hard work and honesty, and then return home like the prodigal son.

Putting an end to the virtual prison in which we are forced to survive, would also avoid the rigmarole of the indefensible, the desperate explanations, when an uninhibited Cuban asks them why they can’t travel like so many workers and middle class and lower class people in other countries.

Ricardo Alarcon, the President of our Parliament, would have been saved, for example, from that demeaning argument that still today surprises us, when a Computer Institute student wanted to know why he could not go to Bolivia, to see where his admired Che Guevara died.  (“Imagine if 3 billion people in the world could travel, the congestion there would be on the airlines…”)

But above all, our leaders would stop using the sacred right to travel freely as a means of repression against those who choose to meet their arbitrariness with words and peace.

It is not about Yoani Sanchez, or many artists “who can’t be trusted,” or the peaceful opposition, or the children of “deserters” from a sport or a medical mission. It is about the fact that this is the right time to show, not the world, but Cubans, that our rights are part of the review that a more sensible and humane government wants to undertake in the country today.

If the arrogance didn’t cloud their reason, I think the logic of this thinking would ultimately prevail. By cruel misfortune, our recent history is marked by the disregard of logic.

October 12, 2010