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Days before start of more open policy, Cuba limits travel for 'skilled' and others

By Marilia Brocchetto and Greg Botelho, CNN
January 12, 2013 -- Updated 0305 GMT (1105 HKT)
Cuban Cruz Duran shows her passport with a travel permission --aka white card-- on October 16, 2012 in Havana.
Cuban Cruz Duran shows her passport with a travel permission --aka white card-- on October 16, 2012 in Havana.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cuba says its residents won't need exit permit or invitation from another country
  • The new policy, which takes effect Monday, also does away with fees that can run to $200
  • This week, Cuban state media detailed restrictions, including for "national security" reasons
  • Limits aim "to preserve the skilled workforce," which includes professionals and scientists

(CNN) -- Cubans used to have to clear numerous hurdles to leave their island. But that is to change in a few days, much to the joy of people like Ernesto Garcia.

"It completely surprised us," the Havana resident said of Cuba's new travel policy, announced last fall and set to take effect Monday. "This great news is taking away a load our shoulders."

So does this mean all Cubans can pack their bags, destined for wherever?

Not necessarily.

After weeks in which passport applications surged and just days before the new policy takes affect, Cuba this week "began to increase the information about the update announced last October," according to a story from the state-run Prensa Latina News Agency.

Cuba faces holiday travel crisis

Specifically, the Labor and Social Security Ministry defined categories of Cubans whose travel would be restricted. They include those who may be "criminally prosecuted, are subject to military service or (are denied) for reasons of defense and national security."

"Also on the list are citizens who have obligations with the state or are not authorized under rules designed to preserve the skilled workforce and protect official information," read the Presna Latina story.

It's not clear, exactly, how sweeping these restrictions will be or why they were announced this week. Col. Lambert Fraga, deputy chief of Cuba's immigration department, explained the government would exercise its prerogative "to protect the scientific, professional and technical fields, as well as key athletes who help the socio-economic development of the country."

Such restrictions are necessary, Fraga told Prensa Latina, "to defend the supreme interests of society."

And even with them, the Cuban official said he expected "most applications will have a positive response."

When announced October 16, the new policy promised to make things easier for would-be Cuban travelers.

They'd no longer need an exit permit or an invitation letter from someone in the country they were heading, nor would they have to pay about $200 to process paperwork, state media reported. With a parent or legal guardian's permission, children under 18 would now be able to travel abroad.

They would be able to be off the island as long as 24 months -- not 11, as was previously the case -- and remain a Cuban citizen. This gives people a chance to obtain and keep longer better-paying jobs outside Cuba, where the average monthly income works out to about $20 U.S.

Instead, they'd only need a valid passport and an entry visa for the country where they were headed.

But while Cuba won't grant exit visas any longer, it appears the country can deny passports.

A story Friday in the state-run Granma newspaper criticized what it called the U.S. "hostile policy toward Cuba" that contributed to "brain drain," claiming many Cuban doctors and other professionals had emigrated at their home nation's expense.

Illeana Sorolla, head of the University of Havana's Center for the Study of International Immigration, called out Washington's preference for "more skilled people," while Granma also said U.S. immigration policies favor activists or others who advocate change in Cuba.

The U.S. State Department weighed in Friday, with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland noting Cuban citizens still need a valid U.S. visa or entry authorization to legally get into the United States, whatever Cuba's policy is.

At the same time, she insisted all Cubans -- whatever their skill set or background -- should have the same right to travel.

"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that every individual has the right to leave any country, including his/her own, and the right to return," Nuland said. "The United States welcomes any reforms that allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely."

CNN's Adriana Hauser contributed to this report.

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