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Cubans eager to take advantage of looser travel rules

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
January 15, 2013 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cubans will now be able to leave the island with only a passport
  • They will be able to stay abroad for two years, take small children along
  • U.S. State Department says it's preparing for a possible increase in Cuban visa requests

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Mileidy Ramayo hasn't seen her father since he left Cuba on a raft but is hoping the loosening of travel restrictions might help bring that reunion closer to taking place.

"I haven't seen my father since 1994. It would change my life to be able to see him and give him a hug," Ramayo said.

On Monday, Cubans will no longer need an exit permit and a letter of invitation from someone in another country to travel abroad.

Shortly after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, stringent travel laws were put in place to stem an exodus from Cuba.

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Now Cubans will require only a passport to travel internationally and can stay abroad for two years -- more than twice as long as the previous restriction -- without losing their property or ability to return to the island.

Doctors and other professionals who the government said owed Cuban society for their training will also be able to take advantage of the looser restrictions. Also for the first time, Cubans will be able to travel abroad with their young children.

But officials have said military officials, who might possess government secrets, and sports stars, who could earn a fortune overseas compared with their salaries in Cuba, will still face added restrictions.

It was unclear whether members of dissident organizations, long prevented from receiving honors and awards abroad, would also be able to travel with greater freedom.

"If you remove the exit permit but you require Cuban citizens to revalidate their passports, the question is: Will everyone get a passport back and therefore be free to travel, or will there still be controls?" U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said in October after the new travel policies were announced.

On Friday, a State Department spokeswoman said in a statement that the United States was working to address any increase in the number of Cubans seeking visas to come to the United States.

U.S. officials have said that at least for the time being, the Cuban Adjustment Act, or "wet foot, dry foot," will remain in place. The act allows Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil to remain in the country.

With the loosening of travel restrictions, Cubans officials again called for an end to the policy.

Waiting in a line to apply for a passport, Ramayo said she hoped that she would soon be able to travel abroad and be reunited with her family. But she conceded she still needed to find a country that would give her a visa and be able to pay for a plane ticket.

Still, Ramayo said, she dreamed of seeing the world beyond Cuba's shores and then returning home.

"It's what everyone wants," she said. "To be a normal country and be like all the people who can just buy a ticket and come to Cuba. That we could go other places too."

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