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Cubans dream of being tourists - abroad

Roberto Leon / NBC News

Alejandro Blas, a TV repairman in Havana, dreams of finally getting the chance to leave Cuba and see the rest of the world.

By Mary Murray, NBC News Producer 

HAVANA, Cuba – Imagine having the right to get a passport, but not having the right to get it stamped.

That’s been the de facto policy in Cuba for half a century where people are basically barred from packing their bags to take a trip abroad just for fun.

Under the current policy, any Cuban wanting to travel abroad needs permission to leave the country, a process that many find not only demeaning, but expensive. Any request can be turned down, often without the applicant learning the reason why, but always after paying $150 to process the paperwork requesting the exit permit.

Between the cost of the passport and other documents, Cuban travelers abroad pay close to $400 – not counting airfare. Those costs make travel out of reach for most Cubans who, on average, bring home about $20 a month. (Cubans get by on such paltry incomes thanks to subsidized rent and groceries, free education and health care, as well as remittances from relatives living abroad)

But, like other restrictions that have defined Cuban society for far too long, this seems destined for the island’s dustbin as reform-minded President Raul Castro streamlines his government’s invasive bureaucracy. On Monday, Cuba’s congress agreed to “study a policy” that would ease the bureaucratic obstacles that keep Cubans from traveling. Castro’s aim is to limit government meddling, while cutting costs to salvage the bankrupt national treasury.

Most people on the island seem to think along the same lines as 25-year-old Nuvia Centeno, who runs a telephone switchboard in the Cuban capital. She’s delighted by the proposed change, and doesn’t care much why the government is dumping the travel ban. 

The right to travel “seems like something basic, something people in other countries take for granted,” she said.

Havana TV repairman Alejandro Blas, 58, agreed. “For 50 years, we’ve had this myth – the whole world can come here, but we can’t go there…What are we afraid of? What is the government afraid of? That people stay abroad and don’t come back? Who cares!”

Rodney Martinez, 35, earns a good living driving tourists around Havana in a three-wheeled bright yellow taxi-scooter called a “Coco-Taxi” because it resembles a big coconut. “I see kids from all over the world coming here on vacation, so why shouldn’t I be able to go to wherever my money can take me? I’d love to visit Europe, Italy, Spain.”

Desmond Boylan / Reuters

People walk on a street adorned with a national flag in Havana July 29, 2010, three days after the 57th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution. Click on the photo above to see a slideshow of photos from Cuba.

It’s not clear when the rules will be altered. A document on some 300 proposed reforms released this week by Cuba’s ruling Communist Party states: “Study a policy that allows Cubans living in the country to travel abroad as tourists.” 

That vague statement though was enough to get the TV repairman Blas envisioning what foreign destination he would fly to. “I’ve been to Africa twice as a soldier, but I never really wanted to go there. I want to go to Mexico to see the Aztec ruins and to the Sahara Desert and to the United States and to all the countries in Latin America. That’s to say, that’s where I’d go if I had the money.”

While that remains the big “if” for most Cubans, long-time Cuba expert Phil Peters argues it’s important just to be able to dream.

“Some can afford it, many cannot, and many would have airfare paid by relatives abroad. What would matter most is that the government would no longer be restricting the exercise of a basic human right,” said Peters from the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think-tank. “That would be a big step forward.”

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Cuban restaurateur learns about capitalism the hard way
Cubans begin to enjoy making money