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Cuba critics look to test government on travel law

Wednesday - 1/16/2013, 2:22am  ET

Ivan Lee, 12, says goodbye to a family member before traveling to Miami, Florida, where he will reunite with his mother who has been living there for years, as he prepares to board a plane at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. Cubans formed long lines outside travel agencies and migration offices on Monday, as a highly anticipated new law took effect ending the island's much-hated exit visa requirement. The new law also extends the amount of time Cubans can remain abroad without loosing their Cuban citizenship. Before the law, Cubans had to return within 11 months, but now can remain 24 months abroad, and are eligible for extensions. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

PETER ORSI
Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) -- For years, Cuban dissidents say, authorities' message to them has been the same: Sure, you can leave the country. Just don't expect us to let you come back.

Now, two prominent and outspoken government opponents say they've been told they can come and go freely under a new law that eliminated decades-old travel restrictions on nearly all islanders.

It's a calculated risk that potentially enables the dissidents to become high-profile ambassadors for change in the communist-run country, traveling abroad to accept awards and slamming the government back home in speeches to foreign parliaments. At the same time, it blunts one of their main criticisms of Cuba's human rights record, that it effectively held them and others hostage by restricting their movement.

"Previously the policy was just to get them out of the country, which really, really did work for the maintenance of the Castro government," said Ann Louise Bardach, a longtime Cuba analyst and author of "Cuba Confidential."

"But if they are allowing them to come back, we are looking at a game-changer of sorts because that could usher in the first embryonic state of some democratic process," Bardach said. "If people can go abroad, criticize the government and return, that's a new day in Cuba."

The government faces some of the same pluses and minuses with all Cubans traveling abroad, showing that it is being more open by letting its citizens leave more easily, but taking the risk that some won't come back. Travelers seeing the world for the first time are apt to experience things that could give them cause to clamor for more freedoms or material goods back home, or it could make them more grateful for basic guarantees like free health care and education. Some will surely have both those reactions.

Cubans of all political stripes lined up outside travel agencies and migration offices when the law scrapping the country's exit visa requirement went into effect Monday, looking to book flights, renew expired passports or just get information about how the measure would affect them.

Among them was Yoani Sanchez, a dissident blogger who has garnered fame overseas for her writings about the frustrations of daily life. Sanchez says she has been turned down 20 times when she asked for permission to travel abroad to accept awards or attend conferences, and authorities told her she would only be allowed out if she was leaving for good.

It's a practice that has been used to rid the island of a number of people considered troublemakers, including dozens of activists who were imprisoned in 2003 during a notorious crackdown on dissent. Under an agreement brokered by the Roman Catholic Church, many of them accepted exile in Spain as a condition of their release in recent years, although some holdouts were freed and allowed to stay in Cuba.

Sanchez said that to her surprise, an official told her Monday she will be able to leave and return once she has her new passport, a process that should take around two weeks.

Shortly before turning in that night, she tweeted enthusiastically about her intention to visit friends in Canada: "I will dream of embraces, walls that fall and borders that dissolve."

Sanchez will apparently be the first dissident to test the government's word, but she's not alone.

In interviews with The Associated Press, several others confirmed plans to travel in the near term, including two recent winners of the European Union's Sakharov prize who were denied permission to collect the award in person.

They include Berta Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White protest group, who hopes to organize a delegation of the women to travel to Strasbourg, France, to pick up their prize from 2005.

Guillermo Farinas, a noted hunger striker and 2010 Sakharov winner, said state security agents took the trouble of driving out to his home in the central city of Santa Clara to let him know he'll be allowed to travel and return.

Both Farinas and Soler would presumably use the opportunity as a bully pulpit to bash their home country, seek support from sympathetic groups and lobby foreign governments to press Havana on human rights and democracy.

"My position will be the same wherever I am. I will say the same thing anywhere," Farinas said. "I believe the Cuban government should be replaced by a democratic government, and it is up to the Cuban citizenry to put another government in place or ratify the one that's there."

Cuban authorities brand the small dissident community as traitors and generally avoid mentioning them except to accuse them of being "counterrevolutionaries" who accept foreign money to undermine the government.

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