Does Exit Visa Waiver Change Anything for Cubans?

In January the Cuban government will lift its unpopular requirement that citizens must get exit visas before being allowed to leave the country.

National Geographic editor Barbara Paulsen interviewed contributing writer Cynthia Gorney about the proposed change. Gorney recently spent three months in Cuba reporting for the magazine on how the new rules opening up the country’s economy are playing out in everyday life. Her article, “Cuba’s New Now,” is the cover story of the November issue.


BP: Getting rid of the exit visa sounds like good news for the Cuban people. Is it?

CG: Sure, it’s important that the government said it is going to drop it. But it won’t have much effect on ordinary people. The exit visa is loathed mostly for what it represents, which is that you have to ask your government for permission to simply leave your own country. It’s more of a symbolic than a practical issue for most Cubans. Most people I talked to would say, “Yes, I wish my country would make it easier for me to travel. But my main problem is I can’t afford it. Where am I going to get the airfare? Look at my income. I make $20 a month. How could I possibly leave even if I could get my visa?”

BP: What about dissidents and professional people, like doctors? Will they be allowed to leave?

CG: I assume that the people in charge will figure out ways to disallow people they don’t want to travel. They will almost certainly keep their most famous complaining dissidents from readily getting the exit visa. They’ll “lose” paperwork, or simply say it’s against national security interests for certain people to travel. And there are people who have advanced education degrees who will likely be kept from leaving. From the Cuban perspective the argument is, “Hey, we spent 17 or 18 years educating this person for free. That person owes us a good decade of service back to the country. It’s not fair if we’ve invested all these resources and then he or she goes to the United States to have a better life.”

BP: When you think about the people you wrote about in your National Geographic article, will this change make a difference to any of them?

CG: My gut answer is no. Because the people I talked to were burdened less by paperwork than by the economic circumstances of their lives. I don’t think you are going to see an exodus—not unless there is some real economic change that puts money into people’s pockets. The ones who are angry or frustrated and just desperate to get out do not regard themselves as political dissidents.  They’re people who wish that Cuba would change and many would love to stay if it did change.

BP: You met a lot of people who are frustrated and fed up. Did you also meet people who still believe in the ideals of the revolution?

CG: Yeah, absolutely, and this is why the best adjective to describe Cuba right now is … complicated. Many Cubans say, “Yes, we absolutely believe that healthcare and higher education should be free, and we think it’s crazy that the richest country in the world, the United States, does not provide that. We don’t want what the U.S. has. We want what we regard as the best of Cuba, a genuine attitude that the resources of a society should be shared in a somewhat egalitarian way. But we also want an end to what we hate about Cuba, which is a sense of oppression, the inability to find out what’s going on in the world because the press is censored, an inability to criticize politics at all, a corrupt bureaucracy. We need to hang on to what we love about Cuba while getting rid of what we hate about it.” And how to do that is the giant question facing Cuba today.

BP:  The announcement about lifting the exit visa referred to the “the theft of talent” and the “subversive plans of the United States.”  Do Cubans believe that the U.S. is encouraging their doctors to defect?

CG: If you’re talking to a person who is really sympathetic to the Cuban revolution, they will say that the U.S. is actively trying to recruit doctors and nurses away because it is trying to undermine the Cuban government. And that’s not paranoid, because the U.S. is trying to undermine Cuba. But if you talk to doctors and nurses and their families who have left they’ll say, “Oh nonsense. It’s not recruiting. It’s saying, ‘If you lived in the United States as a doctor you’d be making a lot of money. In Cuba, you don’t. We wish to tell you this. We wish to inform you of the option to live in a place where you are a part of the upper crust of society instead of a revolutionary hero who has minimal material comfort but is very valued by society.” Like so much in Cuba, there are two warring vocabularies.

Photos by Paolo Pellegrin. See more of Pellegrin’s Cuba photography in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Download Barbara Paulsen’s podcast interview with Cynthia Gorney.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Barbara Paulsen, story development editor at National Geographic, focuses on the connection between geography and society. She develops and edits stories on sustainable agriculture, women and development, indigenous cultures, and geopolitics.