HAVANA (AP) - The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it will eliminate a half-century-old restriction that requires citizens to get an exit visa to leave the country.
The decree that takes effect Jan. 14 will eliminate a much-loathed bureaucratic procedure that has kept many Cubans from traveling or moving abroad.
"These measures are truly substantial and profound," said Col. Lamberto Fraga, Cuba's deputy chief of immigration, at a morning news conference. "What we are doing is not just cosmetic."
Under the new measure announced in the Communist Party daily Granma, islanders will only have to show their passport and a visa from the country they are traveling to.
It is the most significant advance this year in President Raul Castro's five-year plan of reforms that has already seen the legalization of home and car sales and a big increase in the number of Cubans owning private businesses.
Migration is a highly politicized issue in Cuba and beyond its borders.
Under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, the United States allows nearly all Cubans who reach its territory to remain. Granma published an editorial blaming the travel restrictions imposed in 1961 on U.S. attempts to topple the island's government, plant spies and recruit its best-educated citizens.
"It is because of this that any analysis of Cuba's problematic migration inevitably passes through the policy of hostility that the U.S. government has developed against the country for more than 50 years," the editorial said.
It assured Cubans that the government recognizes their right to travel abroad and said the new measure is part of "an irreversible process of normalization of relations between emigrants and their homeland."
The decree still imposes limits on travel by many Cubans. People cannot obtain a passport or travel abroad without permission if they face criminal charges, if the trip affects national security or if their departure would affect efforts to keep qualified labor in the country.
Doctors, scientists, members of the military and others considered valuable parts of society currently face restrictions on travel to combat brain drain.
"The update to the migratory policy takes into account the right of the revolutionary State to defend itself from the interventionist and subversive plans of the U.S. government and its allies," the newspaper said. "Therefore, measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful."
On the streets of Havana, the news was met with a mixture of delight and astonishment. Officials over the years often spoke of their desire to lift the exit visa, but talk failed to turn into concrete change.
"No! Wow, how great!" said Mercedes Delgado, a 73-year-old retiree when told of the news that was announced overnight. "Citizens' rights are being restored."
"Look, I ask myself how far are we going to go with these changes. They have me a little confused because now all that was done during 50 years, it turns out we're changing it," said Maria Romero, a cleaning worker who was headed to her job Tuesday morning. "Everything they told us then, it wasn't true. I tell you, I don't understand anything."
The Cuban government's decision to eliminate exit visas won't mean that Cubans can just get on a plane to the United States.
Kathleen Campbell Walker, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, Texas, said Cubans who fly to the United States are still required to get a State Department-issued visa. Homeland Security officials who review passenger lists for U.S.-bound flights are likely to order an airline to deny boarding to anyone who doesn't have that permission.