PANAMA CITY: The Cuban architect Felix Borges, who last left the island in 1989 to visit Angola, is among a wave of prospective tourists seeking to go abroad as the Cuban President, Raul Castro, begins easing travel rules.
As of Monday, Mr Borges and other Cuban citizens no longer needed exit visas or invitations from a resident of a foreign country in order to travel, a rule that kept many from leaving the island for decades. The policy shift comes as Mr Castro takes more steps to open up the economy as part of the biggest overhaul since the 1959 revolution led by his brother Fidel.
''They'll have normal rules where people can leave and come back,'' said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. ''People can go abroad to get a degree and come back, or work and send money back. It's going to have an economic benefit because it will connect people to the outside world.''
While lifting travel restrictions may cause more Cubans to flee the island for good, Mr Castro is betting that most will return and help rebuild the nation's economy, Mr Peters said. Yet in a country where the average monthly salary is $US19 ($18), according to Cuba's statistics agency, even buying a plane ticket will be beyond the reach of most of the island's 11 million residents.
''Tickets are too expensive even for professionals who just scrape by day to day on their salaries,'' Mr Borges said.
Also, not everyone will be allowed to take advantage of the new rules, which also enable Cubans to stay abroad for two years, up from 11 months previously. The Castro government, in announcing the changes in October, said that they can prevent Cubans from leaving the island for national security reasons and ''to preserve the human capital created by the revolution''.
Most countries, including the US, also require Cubans to apply for travel visas. Ecuador is the only Latin American nation that does not, provoking concern that some Cubans will first travel there and attempt to migrate to the US, Mr Peters said.
Those who flee Cuba are allowed to stay in the US through the so-called wet foot, dry foot policy, which has given refuge to Cubans who manage to cross the Florida straits and step foot on US soil. Cubans intercepted at sea by US officials are returned to the island.