Leaving Cuba: The difficult task of exiting the island

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Havana

image captionThe issue of emigration and travel is now a matter of public discussion in Cuba - even artists are getting in on the act

Cubans need permission to leave their island. And if they stay away too long, they can't come back.

A year ago, President Raul Castro pledged to "update" the country's migration laws and allow freedom of movement. So far, the restrictions remain in place.

But as parliament prepares for the first of two annual sessions on Monday, Cubans are daring to hope that change might finally be imminent.

In Havana, they form long queues every morning outside the city's emigration offices. Clutching bundles of documents and photographs, many arrive well before the gates open at 08:00 to ensure an appointment.

The official noticeboard in the grounds of the Vedado district office is covered in yellow papers, detailing the many rules and regulations.

Would-be travellers need a letter of invitation from the person they want to visit (fee: $200, £128) and permission to leave their place of work. For graduate professionals, that means a letter signed by a minister. They also need $150 for the exit permit, more than seven times the average monthly salary.

Government critics can be refused permission to travel. Highly-valued professionals, like doctors, face extra restrictions.

Reform hopes

"As far as I know, Cuba is the only country with these rules. They shouldn't exist," argues Yenier Prado, who had to wait four months to get his exit permit.

His family already live in the United States and he had an American visa to join them. But first Cuba had to agree he could leave.

image captionIn Havana, Cubans form long queues outside the emigration offices every morning

"The procedure is too much, and it's very expensive," complains Adanay Martin, who is hoping to travel for Mexico to study for a masters in computer science.

"I don't agree with it, they have to get rid of it. But at least they're talking about that now. It's a step forward," she says, after submitting her own application for an exit permit.

At the Communist Party Congress last April, Cuba announced hundreds of once unimaginable social and economic reforms intended to safeguard the socialist system. Private business opportunities were expanded, people were allowed to buy houses and cars, and free travel was established as a principle.

In August, President Raul Castro confirmed that Cuba's migration policy would be altered - recognition, he said, that some regulations once justified in defence of the 1959 revolution had "persisted unnecessarily".

Cuba says it closed its borders soon after the revolution as a matter of national security: the US, just 90 miles away, was the base for fierce opposition to the Castro regime.

The government was also battling a brain-drain, accusing the US of poaching its best-trained citizens to undermine the revolution.

Even today, any Cuban who reaches the US is entitled to residency after one year.

"The rules were established to control who could come and go, but I think circumstances are different and Cubans should be allowed to travel with just a passport," argues Rafael Hernandez, editor of the social science journal Tema.

The announcement of change was widely anticipated at the last session of parliament in December. Instead, Raul Castro spoke of a "complex issue" and said change would come "gradually".

So all eyes are now on the next National Assembly on Monday, where there is a cautious hope that progress will be made.

"I think the consensus [for change] is pretty large. But there is some resistance to changing a policy of almost 50 years," says Mr Hernandez.

"There are people in the leadership who think perhaps there will be a brain drain. But I don't think it will be more than we have now," he says. "If we make this change at last, those who leave will also be able to return. They will not be lost to Cuba forever."

Breaking through

Currently, anyone who stays overseas for more than 11 months loses residency rights. According to the National Statistics Office, 38,165 people were "lost" in that way in 2010 alone.

For many years, those who left the island were seen as traitors, enemies of the revolution. The rhetoric has changed, with official recognition that many Cubans leave for economic reasons.

It's now argued that easing the travel restrictions would allow those who work abroad to maintain their ties with the island, and potentially return with new expertise and - critically - funds.

The issue is now a matter of public discussion.

image captionThe exhibition explores changing attitudes to migration

At this summer's art Biennial there was a silhouette of a plane breaking through fencing on the sea front and images of the Malecon sea wall, made of barbed wire.

And one house in a city side street was decked-out as an airport, with human-like figures poking through windows and hanging from ceilings.

"When we started this project some of my friends told me we'd be arrested, that we couldn't do it," remembers the artist Nadal Antelmo. His exhibition explored the changing nature of emigration, and the use of the word gusano or "worm" for those who left.

"I think it would have been hard to study this theme in the past, and to put it in the street like this for people to interact with. So I think there's a change," Nadal says, surrounded by his statues.

"There is still fear and prejudice about migration, still a way to go. But I think the will for change is there."

But that will still hasn't been converted into concrete policy.

More than a year after Cubans were promised their country would open up, and allow free travel, they're still waiting.