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Havana - Cubans next week will have the right to travel without government permission for the first time in decades, although sports stars will still require permission to leave, an official said.
“Professionals who are deemed essential, technicians, sports people, and (Communist Party) staff and leaders” have been informed that they still face curbs on foreign travel, said Lamberto Fraga, a high-ranking official at the Migration and Foreign Nationals' Ministry, who said they will need a special permit.
“This group of people will be told why they cannot leave the country, and they likely understand that they are essential, which should keep them from going to seek a passport, unless they have authorisation” to travel abroad, Fraga said on state television.
It was announced that doctors were not included in the group of professionals the government considers essential, but authorities did not immediately list all professionals who would be.
Cuba, the Americas' only Communist-ruled nation, is a regional sports power. Havana came in 16th place in the London Olympics in terms of total medal take, the most of any Latin American or Caribbean nation.
It also faces a constant loss of its sports stars, deserting at international meets or on foreign trips.
In some of the most recent defections, three Cuban soccer players fled at a tournament in Toronto last year. In 2011, the island lost several of its top stars in baseball, the national past time, and in football.
Nevertheless, the government announced last October that beginning January 14, Cubans no longer will need the reviled exit visas that have kept most in this country from ever travelling abroad.
The visas, and invitation letters from a host, cost up to $200 (about R1 800) in a country with an average monthly salary of less than $20.
Cubans are intensely and emotionally keen for migration reform, which has been promised but not yet delivered by President Raul Castro, 81, who took over from his brother revolutionary icon Fidel Castro in July 2006.
Since the Cold War era, travel has been painfully limited. Separation from family and friends makes the issue a highly emotional one here, given that about one in six Cuban nationals lives abroad.
The current system also has drawn criticism from some rights groups about Cubans' basic freedom of movement.
Since 2006 Raul Castro's government has ended several unpopular restrictions. Among the things Cubans are now allowed to do is rent rooms in hotels geared to international tourism, sign cellphone contracts, and buy electric appliances. The new system also has allowed Cubans to buy and sell cars and private homes.
But the change - Raul Castro's most dramatic to date - could be a stunning wake-up call to the United States, since it has the potential to set off a bilateral migration crisis.
As part of a held-over Cold War policy, the United States still grants any Cuban who reaches US soil legal US residency on request. Washington does not have this policy for nationals of any other country.
With the US economy weak and the US election cycle just over, the United States has not been planning a welcome for many thousands of new Cuban immigrants who soon may be calling, legally, by sea and by air.
The cost of the passport needed for travel has been doubled to 100 dollars, prohibitive for most Cubans without access to hard currency.
Those who can often earn such funds in the tourist trade, while others have remittances sent from relatives living abroad.
Despite travel restrictions in place since the 1960s, Cubans have emigrated illegally in droves, often using rickety boats to embark on dangerous sea voyages to nearby Florida.
Around two million Cubans have left the country in the last half century. About a million Cubans and Cuban-Americans live in the US state of Florida alone. The population of the island stands at 11.2 million. - Sapa-AFP