ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block. For half a century, Cubans have faced restrictions on travel. To leave the country, they had to buy an expensive exit permit from the government. Well, starting in January, that permit will be history for most Cubans. As Nick Miroff reports from Havana, the move is one of the most significant reforms put in place by President Raul Castro.
NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Crowded immigration offices like this one in Havana's Playa District have long been a source of Cubans' deepest resentments toward their government.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: Would-be travelers queue up in the sticky heat for permission to travel abroad, forking over nearly $170 for an exit stamp, more than eight times the average monthly state salary. It's just one of many bureaucratic obstacles Cubans face to leaving the island, but the symbolism of a travel permit has done more than anything to keep them feeling trapped, especially young Cubans like 27-year-old Alexander del Rio.
ALEXANDER DEL RIO: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: I think this is the only country in the world that makes its citizens get permission to leave, even when another country has given you a visa, says del Rio, who's preparing a trip to the U.S. The travel restrictions were put in place in 1961 as hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled Fidel Castro's revolution, including most of the island's educated professionals. Today, there are some 1.5 million Cubans living abroad and the measure should make it easier to Cuban families to reunite.
Soshari Bernal is immigrating to the United States next month, one of more than 30,000 Cubans who leave each year.
SOSHARI BERNAL: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: I think this is a perfect move, says Bernal. It will make it much easier for my mother to visit me when I'm gone.
Under the current system, it's not the case that Cubans were banned from traveling, though the government has long used the exit visa requirement to punish political opponents. That doesn't seem likely to change. And Cuban authorities will continue to keep restrictions in place to try to curb the brain drain of doctors and other top professionals to countries where they can earn far higher salaries.
The vast majority of Cubans will be free to go to any country that grants them a visa, and 48-year-old Roberto Perez was hurrying to get his passport application in.
ROBERTO PEREZ: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: This will alleviate some of the economic tensions here, Perez says. But the lines at the immigration office are going to explode. Perez says he expects a rush of Cubans applying for passports. And U.S. officials may also be bracing for a new wave of Cuban migrants. Thousands of Cubans get political asylum in the U.S. each year by traveling overland through Mexico and Central America, arriving to those countries by sea or with visas from their embassies.
Twenty-eight-year-old Miguel Fernandez says the risk of a greater exodus is one the Cuban government will have to live with.
MIGUEL FERNANDEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
MIROFF: The truth is that a lot of Cubans will decide to stay abroad, Fernandez says. But if they like their country, they'll come back. The reform measures appear to be directed at exactly that type of Cuban traveler, including new measures making it easier for Cubans living abroad to keep their property on the island.
In that regard, the long-held, rigid Cuban notions of exile and patriotic loyalty may be able to give way to something more flexible, a movement of Cubans back and forth who earn money abroad but spend it at home. It is a change that should make Cuba more like the rest of Latin America. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.
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