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May 25, 2010

The Right to Travel Not

Nick Diaz

Cuban Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon was once asked whether Cubans should be entitled the right to travel freely. This prominent member of the island’s political elite responded in the finest style of standup comedy, saying that if this right existed, the sky would become so filled with airplanes that some would collide with others, causing a great disaster.


In my opinion, the greater disaster was this thug’s response.


This statement was probably no more disastrous than what was later said by the president of the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC). Miguel Barnet affirmed that in Cuba there exists complete freedom to travel, citing as an example the fact that he himself has traveled to 30 countries. Mr. Barnet probably hopes to continue traveling, so he knows he must walk a thin line, the line drawn by the Castro regime.


Such collusion extends to a good part of the Cuban intellectual camp, including many “progressives” and “reformists” whose critical poses are so well liked by foreign correspondents in Havana.


The usual line given by the repressive Cuban regime to explain away travel restrictions for Cuban citizens is simple. There is just one obstacle Cubans face in traveling, and that is obtaining a visa from the destination country.


Such a line diverts attention from the real issue, which is the abusive restrictions on travel, and life in general, by the Cuban regime; it is this regime which insists on focusing insistently on the USA side, without distinguishing anything else around them.


The “intellectual world” in Cuba and elsewhere reacts in convulsions every time a travel visa to the United States is refused for a personality in Cuba, as happened with singer and songwriter Silvio Rodriguez at the beginning of the Obama Administration. Eventually and predictably, the administration relented and granted Mr. Rodriguez a visa. After all, he is particularly popular among “intellectual circles” of the Left in Latin America and Spain.


Similar responses result with the annual rejection of demands by the Cuban members of the Latin American Studies Association (within which there are many Cubans from the island, both reformists and hardliners). LASA advocates the U.S. government grant greater freedom for American academics to travel to Cuba. These are only a couple examples of this hypocritical collusion.


The situation in Cuba concerning the freedom to travel is unfortunate. What I’m describing here is not for Cuban readers who are all too familiar with this issue, but for those who are unaware of the matter and are forced to accept the information of those who close their eyes to this flagrant civil rights violation, a veritable wedge driven between the Cuban nation made up of both émigrés like myself, and those residing on the island.


Above all, travel for Cubans is not a right, but a legal privilege. It is a condition that can be granted or rescinded. It is a revocable concession by an unappealable power and is without a defined judicial framework.


Contrast that attitude with the “inalienable rights” sentence in our Declaration of Independence.


In Cuba there are three ways to travel abroad:


1 – As someone holding an exceptional status, with which they can enter and leave almost freely at whatever moment they consider it necessary. This is granted to some people (but not all) who have married foreigners; also, to prominent members of the political and intellectual elite or their family members. This would almost be a normal status if it didn’t have to be negotiated and if it weren’t revocable should the person demonstrate some type of political behavior unacceptable to the government. Very few people are in this category.


2 – As someone who is leaving on an official assignment (officials, academics, artists and technicians). These individuals require an official institution (any institution in Cuba is an official government institution) to authorize and sponsor their trip, and in each case the person’s passport must be revalidated by Cuban authorities for each trip abroad. If the person who leaves on one of these trips decides not to return to Cuba (if they “desert”), they then lose all rights of citizenship and cannot return to the country for several years (up to five); nor are their family members allowed to leave the island, which means the family is condemned to several years of separation.


3 – As someone going on a private trip, of which there are two categories. The first category, opaque for most earthlings, is the “definitive” exit; meaning the person is emigrating and cannot return to live in Cuba. With this they lose all of their rights and property on the island, effective immediately upon application.


The second category includes people who plan to travel only temporarily. They may remain outside the island for up to 11 months, after which time they must return or else they become “definitive migrants.” In all cases the departure by such individuals must be specifically authorized by the Ministry of the Interior and by the institution where that person last worked.


Other categories of technicians exist, physicians for example, who cannot leave through this channel. Likewise, there is a category for people considered “politically adverse,” for which the obstacles to exit are numerous.


The most dramatic case of denying the right to travel was that of Hilda Molina. By then an elderly scientist and neurosurgeon, she had previously broken with the official party machine (to which she had once passionately adhered) and therefore her reunion with all of her family living in Argentina was denied for years, until the Cuban government finally conceded to a petition from Buenos Aires.


What is particularly outrageous is that people who want to travel temporarily may not take their children (those below legal age). This is only possible when the person decides to emigrate “definitively.”


In all cases, the departures of these people imply considerable fees that can end up in well excess of $500, an immense sum for a population with exceedingly depressed wages that average $20 a month. In short, to leave, each person must be able to pay for a letter of invitation, a passport and an exit permit.


On top of this, once in the destination country, the temporary traveler must make payments to the Cuban embassy in that country a sum that varies each month they remain in that country, a highly unusual practice. This sum fluctuates between $40 and $150 a month.


This is the first of a series of brief descriptions of life in the socialist paradise that Michael Moore, Danny Glover, Sean Penn, and many others so admire and revere.


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