When I read last week that the Cuban government is scrapping its notorious permiso de salida—the official sanction required to exit the island—I immediately thought back to a warm May evening about two years ago. As a college student in Havana, I caught a Cuban friend of mine in a particularly candid mood and took the chance to ask him: “If you could change one thing about your country, what would it be?”
He singled out the Cuban government’s tight constraints on travel outside the island. “It’s like asphyxia, the way I feel not being able to leave here,” he said. “Imagine how you would feel if you were never able to leave your home state. I want to see the Vatican, the Karl Marx museum in Russia, the place in Bolivia where Che Guevara was killed. Cuba will always be my home, but I want to travel. I wake up some days and it’s like ‘Fuck, it’s the same shit.’”
Starting next January 14th, he will need only a visa and valid passport to leave the country, Cuban officials say. The announcement has been welcomed by virtually all Cubans, but the change will be mean most to young people like my friend. It’s a sign that the cantankerous relationship between young Cubans and their government might, just might, be entering a paradigm shift.
“Today, October 16th 2012, is the best day of my life and in the life of many Cubans,” another Cuban friend wrote on his Facebook page. “Now we can finally begin to talk about freedom in the country I love so much. […] Today is the start of a new, true Cuban Revolution.”
Most Americans consider Cuba’s Communist government an illegitimate autocracy, and the near-total ban on travel abroad was fodder for such a stance. But the reality—of both travel and governance in Cuba—is more complex.
“The restrictions began in the early- to mid-1960s when the mass emigration started of the middle class,” said Antoni Kapcia, professor of Latin American history at the University of Nottingham. “The realization kicked in, that although they were happy politically to lose the middle class, they lost a lot of skills as a result.” In response, the revolutionary government sought to curb the “brain drain” of doctors, scientists, and other skilled professionals.
Travel abroad was only one of many prohibitions instituted in the 1960s, but Cubans didn’t revolt. Underpinning the restrictions was an understanding; the Cuban Revolution would govern according to a social contract much like that envisioned by Enlightenment-era political philosophers.
“It’s a social contract in which the government essentially agrees to provide free health care, free education, a cradle-to-grave social welfare system, and to maintain Cuba’s international independence,” said William LeoGrande, dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs. In exchange, “Ordinary Cuban people essentially agreed to go without what we think of as the basics of democracy.”
For many Cubans who lived through the Revolution’s heyday, it was a satisfying arrangement. Support for the Revolution was strong, and the nation’s standard of living skyrocketed; life expectancy, for instance, is 77 years today compared with just 58 years in 1959.
But Cubans my age were not around to give their assent when this social contract was struck, and most feel that it doesn’t serve their interests well. To wit: a rare Gallup poll conducted in Cuba in 2006 found that the revolutionary government had a 61 percent approval rating among Cubans aged 55 to 59, compared with just 38 percent among adults between 25 and 29.
How can we explain such divergent appraisals of the country’s political system? One factor is the higher expectations of a generation accustomed to better living standards. There’s also globalization: “With a highly educated population, 2 million Cubans living abroad, and 2 million tourists visiting each year, Cubans know what lies beyond the horizon and yearn to discover it,” Collin Laverty wrote last week at the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
Meanwhile, economic development has stalled since the fall of the Soviet Union. To shore up public morale, the Cuban government evokes revolutionary heroism of decades long past. For Cubans born in 1959 it’s a relatable message, but for someone born in 1989? Not so much. Their disenchantment with revolutionary messaging is perhaps most visibly expressed by the sardonic graffiti that dots Havana streets.
In the past few years, Cuba has announced several modest but meaningful economic reforms—welcome changes, but the Revolution has continued its heavy-handed regulation of everyday Cuban life. The loosened travel rules are the first big shift that might be considered political.
Even so, it comes heavily laden with asterisks. The average monthly wage in Cuba is only $20 per month. The cost of a passport ($100), let alone a plane ticket, will keep travel essentially impossible for many. Laverty notes that many nations tend to be stingy granting visas to visitors from Third World nations. There’s also still the chance that the Cuban government will be capricious in its approval and denial of passport applications.
Nonetheless, it’s a sign that Cuban authorities might be reconsidering the bargain that they struck 50 years ago. To LeoGrande, the desire for a new deal is clear. “Cubans would like to maintain the social contract that gives them free health care and free education and a good social safety net,” he said. “But at the same time they wish they had more freedom, both economically and politically.”
Here in the United States, our government can do its part for freedom by dropping travel restrictions on American citizens, most of whom are currently forbidden from visiting Cuba. On January 15th, 2013, ours will be the only travel ban left standing.
Chris Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.