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Latin America

Cuba eases travel restrictions for emigrants

The Cuban government has announced plans that would allow citizens who fled the island nation to return with little hassle. The latest reform follows a recent measure that allows Cubans to travel abroad more easily.

A senior official in the Cuban government gave preliminary details of a new measure late on Wednesday, which is to reform travel restrictions on emigrants who left the communist country in the early 1990s.

The new rules would "normalize the temporary entry," of Cubans - primarily doctors and athletes - who have been living abroad for nearly twenty years. Only those who emigrated before 2004 are eligible to reenter the country, according to Wednesday's announcement.

The thousands who fled the country nearly two decades ago have not been welcome to reenter due to restrictions under the penal code regarding an "illegal exit" of Cuba.

Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, the United States government had implemented laws to provide Cuban emigrants citizenship. In addition to issuing up to 20,000 visas per year, it also provided residency to emigrants who landed on US soil.

Because the actual number of visas issued fell below the threshold of 20,000, many Cubans began exiting Cuba illegally, seeing it as the only way to gain safe haven in the US.

The number of refugees rose to 35,000 in July and August of 1994, sparked by a worsening economic situation in Cuba. Former US President Bill Clinton reached an agreement with Fidel Castro in August of 1994 to curb the influx of asylum seekers by no longer granting residency to illegal immigrants.

Nearly two million Cuban immigrants currently reside the US.

Cubans to receive more freedom to travel

Wednesday's announcement came less than two weeks after the Cuban government had said it planned to ease travel restrictions for current residents.

Beginning January 14, 2013 Cubans will only need a visa from the country they are travelling to in order to leave the country. Authorities will no longer require a letter of invitation in order to obtain an exit visa, an exit permit, nor a hefty administration fee, as is currently required.

Cubans are also to be allowed to stay abroad for up to 24 months. Currently, the limit is 11 months.

The travel measures come as part of a series of reforms by President Raul Castro toward gradually modernizing Cuba. The current president succeeded his brother Fidel Castro in 2006.

kms/rg (AFP, dpa)