By Geoff Thale and Clay Boggs
On January 30, Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez euphorically announced on Twitter that Cuban government officials had finally given her a passport. Sánchez has been given international awards for her blog, Generation Y, but she was previously not allowed to travel abroad to receive these awards in person. Cuba’s migration restrictions were deeply unpopular and their restrictions affected many, yet because of Sánchez’ public profile and her willingness to draw attention to the restrictions placed on her, her case is symbolic; the granting of her passport represents an important step forward.
WOLA and many other international observers applauded the Cuban government’s announcement in October 2012 of migration policy reform. The reform, which went into effect on January 14, means that most Cubans will be allowed by their government to travel abroad, and that any travel restrictions will be those imposed by the receiving countries, not by the Cuban government.
Observers noted that political criteria could still be applied to the granting of passports, and that the new rules might still restrict travel for vocal government critics. In particular, many worried that Sánchez and other dissidents would be denied passports. Cuban dissident Ángel Moya was denied a passport on the grounds that he never completed his 20-year prison sentence. (Moya was freed as part of an agreement between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church in 2011.) It remains to be seen whether the government will give passports to other dissidents.
Whatever happens in the next few weeks on the passport status of government critics, the removal of the overall restriction is an important step. In practical terms, since most other countries require that Cubans obtain visas in order to visit, the new rules will not lead to a dramatic short-term change in the number of Cubans traveling abroad. But over time, the changes will increase Cuban travel abroad.
One interesting impact of the changes will come from the new and more generous rules governing how long Cubans can live abroad before they put their residency at risk. The new rules will likely mean that the number of Cubans living and working abroad and traveling back to Cuba regularly will increase significantly. Cubans accustomed to more open and less restrictive societies will travel back to the island and bring their new experiences and habits with them. This will have real effects on Cuban society over time.
The government’s willingness to live with such changes seems to be part of a broader shift, signaling that the Cuban government is increasingly comfortable with reducing restrictions on citizens’ interaction with (and the ability to be influenced by) the outside world.
Two other developments suggest some modest political relaxation:
- On January 22, reports emerged that Cuba had finally activated its subterranean internet cable with Venezuela. The Cuban government confirmed on January 24 that the cable was being tested for internet use, although it warned that internet access would not be improved immediately (see the official statement here, in Spanish). Cuba, with Venezuelan assistance, laid the cable two years ago with the intention of improving internet access on the island, which has been limited to slow satellite connections. But it had, for whatever reason, not activated the cable, leaving Cuba a country with very limited internet access. Though there could well be some limitations, this news suggests that the Cuban leadership is willing to allow expanded internet access.
- In addition, Cuba has started domestic broadcasting of live feeds from teleSUR, the cable and satellite television channel based in Caracas, Venezuela. The channel receives majority funding from the Venezuelan government and additional support from the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Uruguay. (Previously, only edited summaries of teleSUR news were available.) Unsurprisingly, given its backers, teleSUR is a news source whose ideological and political perspective is broadly aligned with that of the Cuban government. But it is not a state-run news service like Cuban television. Driven by competition from other Latin American television networks, and directed to a diverse Latin American audience, it has a broader focus to its reporting and a more diverse set of sources and contacts. (Full disclosure: WOLA staff members have been interviewed by teleSUR—as they have by Fox News and Fox News Latino, MSNBC, CNN, CNN en Español, the BBC and a range of other networks). Through teleSUR, Cubans were able to watch live the broadcast of President Obama’s inauguration on January 21.
These reforms are important because they expand legal access, even if in a still-limited way, to diverse and unofficial sources of information. Of course, many Cubans have access to foreign news, commentary, and programming through unofficial means already. In particular, Cubans regularly distribute news, video, and television data through USB drives, and watch foreign television channels through illegal but often tolerated black market satellite antennas. Cuba is not a police state, and Cubans do not live in an information black hole.
But there have been till now serious limits, both legal and practical, on ordinary Cubans’ abilities to legally access information from abroad. Most foreign newspapers are not for sale in Cuba, and Cuban newspapers are state-owned. Both their coverage and their editorial lines reflect government perspectives, as do the state-owned television and radio stations. Cell phone usage is limited, although it is growing—there are now about 1.5 million cell phone users in Cuba, out of a population of 11 million; five years ago there were only 330,000. But there is no cellular data service in Cuba, and cell phone rates remain high.
The country also has the lowest rate of internet access in the hemisphere. While many Cubans can access a domestic intranet, access to the internet and its worldwide resources is more difficult. Home access to the internet is very limited (most Cubans don’t have home computers or modems) and internet cafés are scarce. Workplace based access is more common, but not extensive. Cubans who lack access at their work can access the internet by using hotel business centers, but the rates are high. At some hotels, half an hour of internet costs more than five dollars. Since the minimum wage is less than twenty dollars a month, Cubans on state salaries without additional income from remittances or other sources cannot afford to pay for internet access.
Those who do get on the internet will find that some news sites and blogs are blocked (although Yoani Sánchez’ blog, for example, is now available in Cuba).
In this context, Cuba’s recent initiatives to provide increased access to information are important, even if they are limited. Combined with the long-awaited migration reform, these reforms suggests a modest relaxation in the Cuban government’s efforts to exercise control over the flow of information into the country and a greater openness to allow Cuban citizens to engage with the outside world. These are positive changes, and they indicate that some modest political and social reforms will accompany Cuba’s ongoing economic reforms.
Geoff Thale is WOLA’s Program Director. Mr. Thale has studied Cuba issues since the mid-1990s and traveled to Cuba more than a dozen times, including organizing delegations of academics and members of Congress.