New migration laws in revolutionary Cuba

Photo © Virgilio Ponce

The new migration laws to be enacted on 14 January 2013 present a challenge to US imperialism and should bring political and economic benefits to Cuba. Announced in October 2012, the legislation removes the requirement of an exit visa, known as a ‘white card’, and letter of invitation for Cubans planning to travel overseas, and extends the period for which Cubans may stay overseas without losing citizenship rights. The measures also facilitate the return to Cuba, either permanently or for visits, of Cubans currently living overseas, including those who left illegally or who abandoned internationalist missions. Helen Yaffe reports.

Cuba’s revolutionary government was impelled to operate migration controls for several reasons. Firstly to slow the exodus of professionals in the first years of the Revolution, mainly leaving for the US. The threat of ‘brain drain’ continued as the revolutionary government established a system of free, universal health care, education, access to sports, culture and so on, creating a highly-skilled but low-waged population (monetary incomes in Cuba are less significant than in capitalist countries because so many material benefits and services are provided free or subsidised by the socialist state). Cuba’s socialist development has depended on the individuals who have received such benefits contributing back to society. Therefore, university graduates who have paid nothing for their education, accommodation and sustenance are obliged on graduation to spend several years employed in the area of their expertise. If all these professionals left Cuba immediately to earn high wages in the private sector in the imperialist world, socialist development would break down. Cuba has also had to defend itself from an imperialist strategy to use migration as an economic, social and political tool against the Revolution. Through the blockade and other aggression, the US and its allies attempt to create misery for the Cuban people, while at the same time endowing them with a unique status which entitles them to citizenship in the US. The US strategy is to encourage illegal emigration as a tool in its political war against socialist Cuba.

The key moments in the recent history of Cuban migration are summarised below.

1954 The requirement to obtain permission to leave Cuba introduced under the Batista dictatorship.

1959 Cronies of Batista’s dictatorship fled Cuba for the US, taking with them as much of the country’s wealth as they could pack.

1959 Only 1% of Cubans were university educated and the departure of this professional elite left Cuba practically de-skilled. For example, 50% of doctors and 65% of engineers left by 1961.

1960-1962 The US government and the Roman Catholic Church terrified middle-class Cuban families into sending their children to Miami in Operation Peter Pan. 14,000 children were separated from their families, many of them permanently.

1961 Kennedy expanded a programme to settle Cubans in the US whilst launching the Bay of Pigs invasion with Cuban exiles in April. In December, the Cuban government in­tro­duced a compulsory exit visa to halt the brain drain.

1965 Between September and November the Cuban government opened Camarioca port for Cubans who wanted to leave. In December, it allowed US-sponsored flights out of Cuba. The programme was stopped by US President Nixon in 1973.

1966 The US government enacted the infamous Cuban Adjustment Act which allows all Cubans arriving in the US, including illegally, to remain there and be granted citizenship after one year. No such programme exists for the emigrants of any other country in the world.

1980 In April the Cuban government opened Mariel port for Cubans who wanted to leave, including prisoners. In September, US President Carter threatened to punish anyone bringing Cuban emigrants to the US.

1994 In August of the worst year of the Special Period, the economic crisis following the collapse of the socialist bloc, the Cuban government said it would not stop those who wanted to leave. They left in rafts, hoping to be picked up by boats from Miami or the US coastguard. To stop the flow of emigrants, in September the US government signed a migration accord with Cuba, agreeing to grant at least 20,000 visas annually to allow Cubans to visit or migrate to the US. It committed to return Cubans caught at sea but continue to grant residence to those who reach the coast. This ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy encourages illegal emigration.

2004 US President Bush restricted Cuban-American travel to Cuba and limited the money they could take and the remittances they could send.

2006 Bush introduced the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program to encourage Cuban health professionals working overseas to abandon internationalist missions for US cit­izen­ship. Only around 2% of the 40,000 Cubans eligible have been seduced by this programme. Few of them have been able to practice medicine in the US.

2009 US President Obama revoked the Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans. However, Obama’s first presidency saw increasing fines issued to companies and individuals trading with Cuba under the US blockade. By September 2012 fines totalled $2.26 billion, including $622 million since the start of 2012, up from $89 million in 2011.

Of the 20,000 visas they committed to grant annually, the US Interest Section in Cuba has routinely, as policy, denied 90% of applications.

In addition to requests for residency, these include temporary visas to visit relatives, study or participate in professional events, sports and cultural activities. For reasons of geography and history, one in three Cubans has family in the United States. The intention is clearly to generate a backlog of applicants, fostering frustration to encourage the emergence of an internal opposition and creating an incentive for the illegal emigration through which many Cubans have lost their lives. However, despite billions of dollars spent on overt and covert programmes to seduce Cubans with the ‘American dream’, the US government has closed the door whenever the Cuban government has allowed waves of emigrants to go there.

The US administration now faces a political challenge to its Cuban migration policy. Any new wave of Cuban emigrants will mostly head for the US claiming their legal right to citizenship. The US government fears that Cubans who travel legally to other Latin American countries will end up on the US border. The US cannot afford such an influx, especially as it is clear that the vast majority would be economic migrants, not political opponents of Cuban socialism. They may be forced to suspend or abolish the Cuban Adjustment Act. That would be a huge victory for the Cuban government. Given the implications for US domestic policy, it is perhaps not a coincidence that these legal changes, in the pipeline for many months, were announced just three weeks before the US Presidential election. Republican presidential candidate Romney pro­mised to revert to the Bush-era restrictions on Cuban-Americans.

However, the increase in Cubans leaving the island from mid-January 2013, either temporarily or permanently, is not likely to be dramatic. The exit visa and letter of invitation were unpopular amongst Cubans and their abolition has been welcomed. Be­tween them they cost $350, a lot of money in Cuba where the average monthly wage is about $20. However, with that obstacle removed, Cubans will still face the principal obstacles to travel confronted by the rest of the world, particularly the underdeveloped world: money (to pay for flights, visas for the countries of entry, accommodation and sustenance – the latter two being free or subsidised in Cuba) and obtaining a visa to enter the destination country. In the midst of a global recession when attacks on immigrants

escalate in the imperialist countries, it will not be easy for Cubans to obtain entry visas. Minimally they require wealthy ‘sponsors’ to prove they can pay their way.

As usual, the Cuban announcement unleashed Cuba-bashing in the bourgeois media. The New York Times claimed the exit visa was responsible for ‘trapping many Cubans looking to leave even for just a few days’ and the Washington Post said ‘many Cubans are simply denied the visa’ (16 October 2012). In fact, between 2000 and 31 August 2012, 99.4% of the 941,953 applications for an exit visa were granted. This figure also shows that, contrary to the common criticism of that Cubans are not allowed to leave, Cubans are internationally mobile – and not just on internationalist health or education missions. From a population of 11.2 million, almost one million Cubans travelled abroad in this 12-year period. Of those, only 12.8% settled abroad and the rest returned. In 2011 alone, 250,000 Cubans went overseas by legal means.

In 2011, 400,000 Cubans living abroad visited their homeland, 300,000 of them from the US where 80% of Cuba’s emigrants live. That is one in four Cuban-Americans. These are clearly not political refugees, as the US government claims, but economic migrants or individuals who have settled with families and study or work abroad, part of the movement of people in a globalised world. The Cuban measures have further facilitated this flow, even allowing those who left illegally or who abandoned missions overseas, including high profile artists, sportspeople and medical and other professionals, to return to the island eight years after their departure. Cuban-American professor Nelson Valdes suggests making it compulsory for Cubans between the ages of 19 and 24 to go abroad. ‘Then we can wait and see how capitalism educates them about their rights.’ Indeed, in the context of the global recession, up to 2,000 emigres are returning from abroad annually to resettle in Cuba while increasing numbers of Cubans are sending money to help their families overseas; a case of reverse remittances. By encouraging the return of emigrants, the Cuban government can expect increased income from tourism and remittances and, in the context of recent measures promoting self-employment in non-strategic areas, an inflow of cash for setting up micro-businesses either by individuals or by families and friends.

Prior to the new laws only 0.6% of applicants were denied exit from Cuba. Among them was Yoani Sanchez, international prize-winning star of the tiny Cuban opposition, who loudly claims to have been refused an exit visa 19 times. She is not so loud about the curious fact that she actually emigrated from Cuba in 2002 to live in Switzerland and then, despite being a vociferous critic of Cuban socialism, returned to the island two years later. After she ripped up her Swiss passport she was granted a waiver to recover her permanent resident status in Cuba, and then took up employment in the service of imperialism. Ironically, while Cuba may now let Yoani Sanchez travel freely to the US, she will go there to denounce the Revolution to a population who are still denied the freedom to visit Cuba. All non-Cuban US residents require the equivalent of an ‘exit visa’ to visit Cuba. Usually reserved for religious or study groups, these ‘licences’ are granted by the US Office of Foreign Asset Control, an institution responsible for implementing the US blockade. No other government in the world requires its residents to obtain an exit visa to visit Cuba. The Cuban abolition of the exit visa will increase pressure on the US to do likewise.

Yoani Sanchez may still find her exit blocked, however, as the Cuban government has retained its right to deny a passport to prisoners, those under criminal proceedings or indebted to the state, or those who for reasons of national security and defence, authorities decide should not be permitted to travel. This will include people in vital economic and political positions. The editorial of Granma, the daily newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party stated ‘as long as policies designed to favour the “brain drain” persist, aiming to rob us of the human resources necessary for the economic, social and scientific development of the country, Cuba will be obliged to maintain measures to defend itself on this front’ (16 October 2012). The editorial went on to point out that: ‘The vast majority of Cubans settled in more than 150 countries maintain stable ties with their homeland and their families, they oppose the blockade and do not want an aggressive policy against their country of origin.’ Indeed, 133 associations have been set in 72 countries up by Cubans living abroad who support the Revolution.

FRFI 230 December 2012/January 2013


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