Despite major events such as the visit of Pope Benedict XVI or the passage of hurricane Sandy through the east of the Caribbean island, it is the travel reform that many Cubans regard as the most important event in 2012. The reform announced in October eliminates the need for the travel permit known as the white card, which had been required of travellers since 1976, and for a letter of invitation from someone in the country of destination.
Cubans will only need a valid passport and a visa granted by the country they want to travel to, the Foreign Ministry said. Private trips may last for 24 months, up from 11 months until now. However, Cuba wants to avoid a brain drain - the massive departures of medical doctors and other professionals critical of the Castrist regime. "Measures will be maintained to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution," according to the announcement published in the government daily Granma.
The authorities may refuse to grant passports for "reasons of defence and national security" and to people who "have obligations with the Cuban state or civil responsibility." The new migration law also mentions "other reasons of public interest." The regime was expected to limit travel by opposition activists, in addition to professional groups.
"It seems that the filter will be in the process of giving the passport, and not in the so-called white card as until now," blogger Yoani Sanchez said. "I have been refused a travel permit 20 times in five years. Will I get one after January 14?" she asked when the new rules were made public.
"If (the authorities) think that (people) should not leave the country, they will not leave," said Berta Soler from the opposition group Ladies in White. A mass departure of Cubans is unlikely also due to restrictions imposed by other countries, the vast majority of which require an entry visa from Cuban citizens. Many Cubans, however, hope that the travel reform will bring at least a little more freedom, as happened with the recent economic reforms. They allowed some Cubans - albeit a minority - to obtain self-employment licences and to work independently.
Lifting travel restrictions could also have an economic impact, as travellers will return to Cuba with foreign currency and goods from abroad. "The changes that have been carried out so far will necessarily lead to a demand for more reforms," said US-Cuban political scientist Arturo Lopez Levy, who teaches at Denver University. There is "no doubt" that Cubans want more reforms and freedom, Lopez Levy said.
Open questions about the travel reform include the reaction of the United States, which has accused Cuba of encouraging illegal emigration. In the 1980s and 90s, thousands of Cubans left for the US. Many of them set off on flimsy vessels and drowned during the 145-kilometre crossing to the US state of Florida. Migrants caught on the open sea are taken back to Cuba, while those who reach the US coast are allowed to stay. More than 2 million Cubans live abroad, 85 per cent of them in the US. Many of them are now hoping to see relatives whom they have not met for years.