Cuban Travel In Record Numbers A Year Into Reform

Daily Business Review

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"Why didn't I stay?" Roman shrugged. "Well, simply because I have my 68-year-old mother here and my children ... and I'm not going to leave them."

Only about 40 percent, or 26,000, have returned to the island so far. That means about 40,000 Cubans are still abroad—comparable to the total number of Cuban immigrants to the United States in 2012.

There is no way of knowing their plans, but many are likely to return to the island eventually, after finishing up the academic year, for example, or taking advantage of a new provision in the travel reform that lets islanders stay overseas for two years without losing residency rights back home.

Cubans who remain in the U.S. for at least a year qualify for residency there, meaning for the first time some will be able to live binational lives, shuttling back and forth and enjoying the best of both countries.

There are still barriers to travel, such as affording the cost of airfare and the difficulty of obtaining visas from countries that view Cubans as possible immigrants.

But it seems inevitable that the law will lead to some increased emigration, at least as long as Cuba's economy remains so weak. Others will leave to escape Communism, though more recent emigrants have tended to leave more often for financial opportunity than for political freedom.

It would be a continuation of an upward trend in recent years that in 2012, before the reform took place, saw 46,662 islanders leave legally and permanently, according to Cuban government statistics. That was the largest outflow since 1994, but far less than past migratory crises such as the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, when some 125,000 left in a span of six months.

There have also been anecdotal reports of doctors defecting, and more Cubans showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border and claiming entry under a law that lets Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil stay. Visa requests are up at the Mexican Embassy in Havana, which recently had no visa appointments available until 2016.

Last week six Cubans were temporarily in limbo at the transit area of the international airport in Bogota, Colombia, after they were kicked out of Ecuador and refused to board their connecting flight back to Havana.

Ecuador is one of the few nations that don't require a visa of Cubans, but after the January law it began making them secure letters of invitation to enter.

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