Cubans line up for passports after eased travel rules

Cubans line up outside the Mexican Embassy in Havana.
CBS News/Portia

HAVANA Cuba's immigration computer system was temporarily brought down Monday morning, apparently due to the large number of passport applications that flooded in after a new, eased migration policy went into effect.

Pablo, a 47-year-old graphic designer, said he was hopeful the system would be back up and working when he returned later in the afternoon to apply for passports for his three children. He wants to take his family on a visit to Canada.

"Before minor children could only leave the country if you were leaving permanently, so I've benefited from the new migration policy," he said. "My idea is to travel soon with my wife and children but temporarily and to return [to Cuba]."

People were on line at the immigration office in the Playa neighborhood of Havana from 5 a.m. and many, including women with small children, did not get out of there until after 6 p.m. because of computer problems. A young trade ministry worker who wanted to renew her passport said she overheard an immigration official saying the system would be upgraded that evening to increase the speed at which it worked. In addition, she said, there was some confusion among both people and immigration staff of exactly how the new procedures worked.

In California, Carmen, who asked CBS News not to use her real name because she doesn't want any problems when she next enters Cuba, is overjoyed with the new rules rolled out by President Raul Castro. Since she left nearly six years ago, Carmen, who has become a U.S. citizen, has had to pay $150 a month to renew her permission to stay abroad and has had to return every 11 months in order not to lose her ownership of a home in Cuba or her other rights as a Cuban citizen.

"Now I can stay abroad for up to 24 months and do not have to pay a monthly charge. Do you realize how much money I'll save?" she told CBS News. Over five years, she has spent $8,250 in migration fees and approximately another $5,000 in plane fares from L.A. to Havana, she said.

"I'll now have more money to send back to my family," Carmen said.

Until now, Cubans who did not have special permission to live abroad have lost their property and rights on the island. Many have lost their right to even return to Cuba for having stayed abroad beyond the permitted time limit.

A young IT specialist named Ernesto left Cuba legally for Ecuador, one of a handful of countries Cubans could travel to without a visa. After four years of scrapping by, he made his way to Mexico and crossed the border into the U.S., where, like many others, he was allowed to enter and apply for residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.

Ernesto hopes Cuba's new migration policy will allow him to return home for a visit, but he still has a year to go to get his U.S. residency -- under American law, he can't leave the country before then. He's caught between two systems.

On January 11, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland noted that Cuba's exit permit was a "major impediment for Cubans seeking to travel overseas" and applauded the Cuban government's move to remove it. She added that "U.S. visa policy ... remains unchanged. Cuban citizens still require a valid U.S. visa or entry authorization to enter the United States."

So passports in hand, Cubans are now seeking visas from the U.S., Mexico, Canada or other countries.

Berni Tornes speaks to a Canadian Embassy official through the gate.
Berni Tornes speaks to a Canadian Embassy official through the gate.
CBS News

Outside the Canadian Embassy in Havana, a 33-year-old civil engineer named Berni Tornes stood in line Tuesday waiting to apply for a visa. He has friends in Canada who will help him out with housing while he visits the country "as a tourist," but that he doesn't have enough money to stay for long.

"The opportunity to travel abroad and then return and then leave again is perfect," he said. "In my opinion, people immigrate for economic reasons. They go to work and return and to do as well as you can here in the country." Tornes added he would be happy to work in Canada for a while if he gets a visa and if the Canadian Government allows him to.

Pedro Luque, 26, traveled more than 470 miles from his home in Santiago de Cuba to request a visa from the Mexican Embassy. His experience reveals the obstacles facing Cubans hoping to travel abroad: His first application for a visa was turned down by the Mexicans.

Mexico, he said, wants proof that you own your own home, a car and have money in the bank. "The more property you own, the more possibilities you have of getting a visa", he told CBS News. Luque says he has a degree in economics, but now makes his living selling music and movie CDs and DVDs.

"I didn't have all the proof I needed the first time I applied. Hopefully the documents I'm bringing now will be sufficient."

Julia Sweig, a senior fellow and Director of Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., said Havana's opening of the door for Cubans to travel abroad is "a strategic move." She said the government "calculates that allowing Cubans to come and go, keep their property [and]their residences will bring economic benefit to Cuba and dampen the deep unhappiness around the status quo."

Furthermore, Sweig thinks Havana wants to show its more "responsive to public opinion and will ultimately recognize that the pressure on 'brain drain' in a global economy are not unique to Cuba, not only a result of U.S. government inducement to defect but a fact of global economic life."

By dropping most of the controls on travel, President Castro is passing the ball to other countries which will either grant or deny entry visas for Cubans.

According to Sweig, it will also highlight flaws in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

"I think it will expose the anachronistic nature of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which does induce Cubans to leave illegally or irregularly," she said. "Especially, it will help pull the curtain back on the obvious fact that Cuban migrants are by and large economic, not political migrants. As the U.S. government undertakes immigration reform, there will be pressure to review the law from a fairness perspective, as well as from a national interest perspective."

Across the island, Cubans are applying for passports not only at immigration centers but at national identity card bureaus and 195 other passport offices recently established. And then they are going on to knock at embassy doors in Havana.