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Cuba's Easing of Travel Signals a Sea Change of Hope

January 13, 2013

A new kind of migration is launched as the communist state eliminates a long-standing restriction on Cubans' ability to leave.

MIAMI -- The stories of past Cuban migrations to the United States are filled with harrowing tales at sea.

The 1980 Mariel Boatlift saw U.S. watercraft packed with more than 100,000 Cubans fleeing the island. The rafter crisis of 1994 saw tens of thousands more braving the 90-mile voyage across the Florida Straits on inner tubes, Styrofoam vessels and cars converted into floating barges.

Starting Monday, a new kind of migration commences as the communist government eliminates a long-standing restriction on Cubans' ability to leave the country, with its population of more than 11 million. And this time, instead of pushing out to sea and riding the Gulf Stream, the route to the U.S. could take Cubans on a meandering tour of foreign airports, visa offices and difficult land crossings….

Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, agrees that the Cubans see this as a money-making venture. But he said there are other motivations involved.

"There is a palpable concern among some government officials about this process of reform getting a little out of control, that it's slipping out of their hands," Sabatini said.

Allowing some Cubans to travel more freely, he said, provides a "distraction" from the still-languishing economy and a "safety valve" to release some of the steam building up in the dissident community.

"It's never that easy with Cuba," Sabatini said….

Sabatini said officials throughout Latin America, especially in Mexico, are considering visa restrictions on Cubans to avert mass influxes.

"They're scrambling behind the scenes figuring out what to do," Sabatini said….

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