Cuban Travel In Record Numbers A Year Into Reform

Daily Business Review

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The United States, meanwhile, has publicly welcomed the travel reform and issued around 32,000 tourist and professional visas to Cubans in the most recent fiscal year ending Sept. 30—a 100 percent increase over the previous period—according to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The mission, which Washington maintains instead of an embassy, also handed out roughly 24,000 immigration visas.

Havana is betting that those who leave will send even more money back home than they do now. Remittances rose slowly during the George W. Bush administration and skyrocketed after President Barack Obama lifted limits on how much Cubans in the United States can send home each year. Overall, they are up more than 160 percent since 2000, according to a study by economist Emilio Morales of the U.S.-based Havana Consulting Group.

Morales estimates that remittances were $5.1 billion in 2012, about half of that in cash and half "in kind"—goods sent or brought to the island. Only Cuba's oil-and-services commercial deals with Venezuela represent a bigger source of foreign income.

As for the dissidents, many have gone overseas to claim international human rights prizes and publicly bash President Raul Castro's government. Only those with pending legal cases have been denied a passport.

"We have been able to go to places where there is freedom, where there is democracy," said Berta Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White protest group who shook Obama's hand in Florida in November. "We have been able to talk to the international community about the reality of the Cuban people."

Yet they face an uphill climb to raise their profile back home, where they are largely unknown and ignored by state-run media. Some have stayed overseas, eliminating a headache for a government that officially considers the opposition mercenaries out to undermine its sovereignty.

Travel can help the dissidents "in terms of a boomerang, them having international exposure and that getting back to Cuba," said Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College who studies the dissidents and has ties to some. "But to the extent that they need to engage the public in Cuba ... there's still a brick wall in terms of control of the mass media and public spaces."

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