My cell phone rang just as a stern-looking soldier handed me the forms to apply for an exit permit. The mansion on 17th between J and K streets had been restored: new aluminum and glass windows, retouched paint, and an expanded number of chairs for the long wait. Nothing in this recently retouched institution, yesterday, indicated that they would be easing the restrictions to enter and leave the country. Rather it seemed that the enormous smokestack-free industry of travel restrictions–paying substantial annual dividends in hard currency–would remain in place for many years. I reluctantly took the call, overwhelmed by the bureaucracy that had ground away at me all morning. An almost metallic voice, passed through the circuits of Skype, asked, “Did you hear what Raul Castro said?”
I returned home and listened to the Cuban president’s speech before the National Assembly. Almost at the end, he announced that they were “working to implement an upgrade of the existing immigration policy.” In my hands, however, I now have all the forms to get a travel permit and a passport filled with visas I haven’t been able to use. This coming Thursday I am supposed to leave for the BlogHer event in San Diego, but it is unthinkable that the new flexibility will go through fast enough for me to board the plane in time. Listening to the new Maximum Leader, I was reminded of a friend who said, half jokingly, half serious, “In Cuba not even the widest openings are that open, nor are the closures that closed.” In this case I can’t let go of the skepticism that comes from my own personal experience, with 16 denials of a travel permit in just four years.
For too long, the ability to leave and enter the country has been a method of ideological coercion. Obtaining the “white card” that allows us to leave our insularity, or the “empowerment” to enter our own country, has been conditioned on our being “politically correct.” I do not think, in reality, that the flag will fly at the same height for all. A list of people who may not leave will be kept in some drawer, a scarlet letter marking those who will not benefit from this reform. However, something is moving in the right direction. At least I have hope that when most Cubans are able to travel freely, the forced immobility of others will be more of an embarrassment.