Don't Panic

What relaxing travel restrictions means for Cuba

This week, Cuban President Raúl Castro announced plans to relax Cuba’s restrictions on foreign travel for its citizens, bringing an end to 60 years of immurement.

It comes six years after Raúl took over from his ill brother, Fidel, the maverick revolutionary who swept to power during the revolution of 1959, which turned the Caribbean island into the region’s only communist state.

Until now, voyaging outside of Cuba involved a complicated and expensive visa application process. The permits cost upwards of $150, which is a lot of money when national pay averages $20 a month.

The reasons for such restrictions are clear. The fear has always been that allowing citizens to travel beyond the country’s shores would result in state crippling brain-drain - that is - the widespread emigration of its educated populous in search of new opportunities in the capitalist world.

Cuba's President Raul Castro

Restricting your citizens’ travel is a spirit-crushing system of subjugation, which mocks state legitimacy and limits ambition, dynamism and enterprise.

In the 90s, the dictator of central Asian state, Turkmenistan deployed this tactic with remarkable guile. By lowering the standard of the country’s university degree, Saparmurat Niyazov (also known as Turkmenbashi) thereby invalidated degrees to much of the international community, and reduced the appeal of the country’s émigrés.

Further back, books such as Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being documented the plight of Soviet intellectuals trying to escape the Eastern Bloc;  yearning for a type of political and philosophical freedom quashed beneath the state tyranny of 80s Czechoslovakia.

And yet, there is a profound difference with the Cuban sensibility, born out of a combination of the Caribbean climate, local-hero status of its revolutionaries and natural beauty.

When I visited there in 2006, I found the denizens to be, on the most part, reluctant to criticise their government. Neither were they particularly hostile towards the United States, a country that has bullied the tiny island over the past 60 years in an ongoing embargo of barbaric hypochondria.

Instead, they were far more interested to learn about the UK, and Europe, and anywhere else for that matter. They wanted to know what the people in England wore, what their days consisted of and how they dressed. They wanted to know how Cuba was viewed by the rest of the world, and if we had such state-funded amenities as you find in each Cuban town, like cultural centres, with communal pianos and computers.

So does this mark the beginning of the end of Communist Cuba? Actually, the beginning was the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it is certainly the most significant local reform. The fact that the Castro administration continues 20 years after its Soviet patrons vanished is testament to Cuba’s unique situation.

In one way, the continuing American embargo has helped the regime, acting as a common foe and scapegoat. But fundamentally, the country is about to change irrevocably, so I’d urge anyone who hasn’t visited there yet to book a couple of weeks off between now and February. Cuba is the last remnant of a political system born from beautiful values, but that has been defeated by its own limitations.

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