People present their passports at an immigration booth at Jos Mart International… (STR / EPA )
For 50 years, Cubans have been prevented from leaving their country by an anachronistic and repressive travel policy that has aptly been compared to a paper version of the Berlin Wall. The government's announcement Tuesday that it plans to end this inhumane system was long overdue and more than welcome.
Since shortly after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cubans who wanted to leave the island (which is slightly smaller than Pennsylvania) have been required to obtain an exit visa that is not only too expensive for the average citizen but often denied for arbitrary or political reasons. Under the new policy, scheduled to go into effect in January, those exit permits will be eliminated and Cubans will be allowed to travel abroad more easily, more inexpensively and for up to two years or more at a time. In turn, President Raul Castro hopes the country will receive more money in remittances from abroad, injecting much-needed capital into the anemic economy.
The new policy is not perfect. Cuba's government has already carved out exceptions. Scientists, athletes and other professionals will still be subject to the old rules in an effort to prevent a "theft of talents," otherwise known as a brain drain. Dissidents too could be kept from traveling under an exception for national security. And the new policy could spark a mass exodus similar to the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when thousands of Cubans took advantage of a brief loosening of the exit rules and fled the country.
While the new travel rules are less ambitious than they could be, they nevertheless represent a significant shift. The United States should respond by abandoning some of its own outdated Cold War rules. The Obama administration has already taken some steps in this direction, including relaxing restrictions on remittances and travel to the island. But it can do much more, including lifting the long-standing trade embargo, which is both archaic and ineffectual, and ensuring that visa applications from Havana are not subject to unnecessary delays.
Any change that grants Cubans greater freedom should be encouraged.