Travel Reform Hits Cuba, But Are Cuban-Americans Ready For the Change?

Last Monday, Cuba lifted a set of decades-old travel restrictions on its population, supplementing the list of incremental economic reforms that the government has announced and brought into effect, albeit slowly. The new travel regulations remove the requirement for an exit visa, the need for an invitation from a foreign host, and multiple steps of highly subjective employer and government approval previously needed to exit the country.

On January 14, hundreds of Cubans formed lines at immigration offices throughout the island to apply for passports and test the waters. For most, the ability to travel to and from their homeland seems a distant and strange freedom. For Cuban-Americans, the promise of change seems an equally strange departure from what they have known Cuba to be, from what drove them away in search of different freedoms.

Theoretically, the change could present an incredible opportunity for Cubans to experience the world outside of their borders and participate in more academic or professional exchanges. But the change is far from a panacea, as travel continues to be cost-prohibitive on an average salary of $20 a month. Furthermore, Cubans will still require entry visas to visit most countries — except for a handful that includes Russia, Liechtenstein, Kazakhstan, and Barbados — and those will continue to be given in limited quantities by the issuing nations.

Despite tempered optimism and daydreaming, no one seems agog with enthusiasm — when will the second shoe drop and what will it look like? It seems fitting since the whole panoply of nuances remains unconfirmed and a range of externalities has yet to be revealed. Will travel abroad lead to brain drain of the brightest and most promising young minds? Will prominent dissidents be allowed to travel and — most importantly — return freely? Will passports be denied to high flight risk individuals? Will a new class of binationals emerge, legal residents of both Cuba and the United States? Will the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to apply for asylum and be eligible for a green card after a year, be repealed in the U.S.? 

In this context, a particular consideration has received surprisingly little attention — how will the Cuban-American exile community respond to these changes and interact with the nascent Cuban traveler?

‘Reconciliation’ has become a buzzword in South Florida over recent years. Like most hackneyed phrases, it has developed multiple meanings, most of them superficial. The arrival of a new kind of Cuban — a traveler, instead of an émigré — is bound to test what ‘reconciliation’ truly looks like and elicit the entire range of human emotion — discomfort, fear, anxiety, joy, excitement, nostalgia, confusion, hope.

This territory has gone largely unexplored. Despite much recent talk of emerging generational differences in the Cuban-American community, there is little acknowledgement that both abuelos and nietos remain fundamentally alienated from the waves of immigration that followed their own. Ironically, as younger Cuban-Americans have embraced the idea of study-abroad, research, and volunteer opportunities in Cuba and some of their older counterparts have opened up to purposeful travel to the island for religious or cultural reasons, most remain disengaged from the recent immigrant population in their own backyard.

True, there are complex socioeconomic, historical, linguistic, and cultural explanations for why crosspollination between the “million different Cubas” in Miami is infrequent, but it remains a strange case study in community convergence and separation. It is also a learning opportunity for what communication and connection among Cubans and Cuban-Americans could require — an honest confrontation with our own history and memories, emotional baggage and nostalgia in the face of a shifting reality. More relaxed travel from Cuba will bring the exile community face-to-face with this question.

Unquestionably, establishing a deeper connection will require more substantive person-to-person contact on both shores. More importantly, it will necessitate the creation of a different narrative on both sides, one that does more than outline the self vs. the other and that begins to tear down assumptions about our joint and divergent histories. Those who stayed behind are not necessarily complicit in Cuba’s political and economic reality. Those who fled did not forget their homeland or meet with easy adjustment and success. The revising of biases, preconceptions, and projections is bound to be an unpleasant exercise in change, but it is a necessary one if Cuban-Americans and Cubans are to understand each other in their current contexts — neither whom they were 50 years ago, nor whom they wish they were now.