The Cuban government announced Tuesday that it will no longer require islanders to apply for an exit visa, eliminating a much-loathed bureaucratic procedure that has been a major impediment for many seeking to travel overseas for more than a half-century.
A notice published in Communist Party newspaper Granma said that as of Jan. 14, islanders will only have to show their passport and a visa from the country they are traveling to.
It is the most significant advance this year in President Raul Castro's five-year plan of reforms that has already seen the legalization of home and car sales and a big increase in the number of Cubans owning private businesses.
"These measures are truly substantial and profound," said Col. Lamberto Fraga, Cuba's deputy chief of immigration, at a morning news conference. "What we are doing is not just cosmetic, and requires 90 days to properly establish a series of regulations ... so it works well and there are no problems."
The newspaper said that the government had decided to "update the current migratory policy" and "eliminate the procedure of the exit visa for travel to the exterior."
Migration is a highly politicized issue in Cuba and beyond its borders.
Under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, the United States allows nearly all Cubans who reach its territory to remain. Granma published an accompanying editorial blaming the travel restrictions imposed in 1961 on U.S. attempts to topple the island's government, plant spies and recruit its best-educated citizens.
"It is because of this that any analysis of Cuba's problematic migration inevitably passes through the policy of hostility that the U.S. government has developed against the country for more than 50 years," the editorial said.
It assured Cubans that the government recognizes their right to travel abroad and said the new measure is part of "an irreversible process of normalization of relations between emigrants and their homeland."
The decree still imposes limits on travel by many Cubans. People cannot obtain a passport or travel abroad without permission if they face criminal charges, if the trip affects national security or if their departure would affect efforts to keep qualified labor in the country.
Doctors, scientists, members of the military and others considered valuable parts of society currently face restrictions on travel to combat brain drain.
"The update to the migratory policy takes into account the right of the revolutionary State to defend itself from the interventionist and subversive plans of the U.S. government and its allies," the newspaper said. "Therefore, measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful."
On the streets of Havana, the news was met with a mixture of delight and astonishment. Officials over the years often spoke of their desire to lift the exit visa, but talk failed to turn into concrete change.
"No! Wow, how great!" said Mercedes Delgado, a 73-year-old retiree when told of the news that was announced overnight. "Citizens' rights are being restored."
"Look, I ask myself how far are we going to go with these changes. They have me a little confused because now all that was done during 50 years, it turns out we're changing it," said Maria Romero, a cleaning worker who was headed to her job Tuesday morning. "Everything they told us then, it wasn't true. I tell you, I don't understand anything."
Cuba-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen referred to the measure as "so-called reforms" that are "nothing more than Raul Castro's desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing.
"But anyone who knows anything about the communist 53- year-old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene," the South Florida Republican said.
The Cuban government's decision to eliminate exit visas won't mean that Cubans can just get on a plane to the United States.
Kathleen Campbell Walker, an immigration lawyer in El Paso, Texas, said Cubans who fly to the United States are still required to get a State Department-issued visa. Homeland Security officials who review passenger lists for U.S.-bound flights are likely to order an airline to deny boarding to anyone who doesn't have that permission.
Cubans who do make it to the U.S., regardless of whether or not they have a visa, are generally admitted to the country.
"Our own visa requirements remain unchanged," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday.
"We obviously welcome any reforms that'll allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely," said Nuland. "We remain committed to the migration accords under which our two countries support and promote safe, legal and orderly migration."
Under those 1994 accords between the two countries, Washington has encouraged Havana to take steps to prevent any future mass exodus.
Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, said he is cautiously optimistic that the move will reduce the isolation of the Cuban people and increase interaction between the U.S. and Cuban civil society.
"The important story is the Cuban government has taken a step that has long been demanded by the Cuban people," he said.