Cuban opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez, who is on an 80-day world tour to receive numerous awards from her international supporters has said that she has two messages to the world: 1) that Cuba is changing because the Cuban people are changing; 2) that that trend does not mean the government is changing its policies. This is nonsense, but unfortunately it has not been properly discussed because her appearances at several American campuses, including my alma mater, Columbia University, has been more an occasion to accolade her than to engage in critical thinking about Cuba and U.S. policy toward the island.
Cuba is changing because the political context of the island has changed with the retirement of Fidel Castro. There is a virtuous cycle in which less vertical relationships between the citizens and the state are emerging. These new types of links are the result of new attitudes among the population, but also of changes in several official policies. Unfortunately those changes have not been reciprocated by a substantial lifting of the U.S. travel ban to Cuba, a policy still anchored in the Cold War. The Obama administration's response to Cuba's restoration of the right to travel has been limited to simply calling it a positive development.
Ms. Sanchez's mere presence in the United States was impossible without some important changes in Cuba's travel policies. On October 16, Raul Castro's government announced a package of changes that included repealing law 989, which was instated in December 1961 and allowed the government to confiscate the "property, rights and shares" of those who "are definitively absent from the national territory," and made substantial changes to the migration law of September 1976. The unpopular exit permits and letters of invitations, which had saddled would-be Cuban travelers with burdensome fees and prevented many Cubans, including Ms. Sanchez from traveling in the past, were eliminated as of January 14.
The promoters of the travel reform:
Equally deceitful is Ms. Sanchez's attribution of changes to travel policies to the fragmented and weak political Cuban opposition. The number of active opponents to Cuba's government has moderately increased in the last 20 years but still they are not more than a few thousands. Their power of mobilization is still meager. No street demonstration of the opposition has reached 500 participants yet. The greatest empowerment of Cuban civil society is associated mainly with the religious communities, independent intellectuals and amphibious groups that operate independently but within legal organizations such as the Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC).
The political logic of Cuba's new migration policy is evident: 1) it opens doors to the definitive emigration of those most irritated by official policies; 2) it increases the possibility of circular migration by reducing the costs of and barriers to travel in both directions; 3) it synchronizes Cuba's migration policy with economic reforms elaborated in the guidelines of the VI Congress of the Communist Party.
The dynamics that have driven changes in Cuba's migratory policy are related to internal legitimacy, the economic reforms, and the politics of emigration. Raul Castro's government constitutes a transition to a post-totalitarian regime, without the levels of ideological mobilization that were possible under the charismatic leadership of Fidel Castro. After two decades of failed policies, the Cuban Communist Party faced not a vibrant opposition but the people's alienation. Fostering economic growth, increasing the standards of living of the population and providing space for some individual liberties is the only way to restore legitimacy.
The changes are positive steps that bring Cuba closer to compliance with international standards of freedom of movement. Their proponents are public officials who are sufficiently pragmatic to react to the globalization of the new political, economic and cultural elites and to the demands of the reformist sectors on the island and in the emigrant community, and who are capable opening up public debate about issues like civil liberties and economic reforms. Cuba's international models, setting aside its hesitance to import foreign solutions, are the market socialisms of China and Vietnam.
The effect of such dynamics will create challenges for the Cuban government, which still needs to respond to the concerns of its population, now connected to the outside world, in the absence of spaces for citizens to voice their complaints. The changes taking place will inevitably lead to demands for further reforms. Cubans may now reside for two years in the United States, study or work in Mexico or Spain, and return to Cuba with their newly acquired monetary, human, and social capital. The dominant sentiment in a population with a median age of 38.7 years is in favor of gradual and orderly changes, but more reforms and liberalizations will undoubtedly be demanded.
The Challenge for the United States
The challenge for the United States is not to find a temporary, quick fix, like in the migratory crises of 1980 and 1994, but rather to implement structural modifications. The adopted changes are not meant to unleash a massive or uncontrolled emigration to relieve an urgent crisis. It is not a coincidence that the second provision of the new legislation (Decree-Law 302) distinguishes between the "Cuban Adjustment Act" and the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, the former legislative, the latter, an executive order. Extending to two years the time that Cubans can stay abroad without losing residency status, for the first time permits Cubans to be eligible for the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 while maintaining their residency, status and property on the island. Cuban citizens who are also citizens of countries that do not require a United States visa (Spain, in particular), or who have visas from third countries, can reach U.S. soil and, if they enter legally, after one year, may begin procedures to obtain permanent residency and eventually, citizenship.
The new dynamic created by these migration policy changes is very favorable to moderate sectors within the Cuban emigrant community, which, given the increase in travel, would benefit from the growth of a transnational public space between Cuba and the United States. These new forces favor a less hostile bilateral relationship. For those groups and for the sake of U.S. national interests, which is not the same as the vindictive desires of the exiled Cuban right, the ideal would be an adjustment of U.S. policy that discontinues the automatic acceptance of Cubans arriving irregularly, but permits those who enter with legitimate visas for family visits, study or travel, to claim legal residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Since January 14, the paradoxical reality is that the majority of Cubans are free to visit the United States, if they get a U.S. visa, while the majority of U.S. citizens are prevented from visiting the island. As Cuba changes, the inability of U.S. policy to adjust to new the context looks more schizophrenic than ever.