HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba will scrap much-reviled travel restrictions starting in January, easing most Cubans' exit and return, state media said on Tuesday, in the communist island's first major immigration reform in half a century.
The Cuban government imposed broad restrictions on travel starting in 1961 to try to stop a mass migration of people fleeing after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.
The government now is set to lift requirements to obtain an exit visa permitting departure from Cuba and a letter of invitation from someone in the destination country.
Instead, starting on January 14, Cubans will simply have to show a passport and, if needed, a visa from the country to which they are traveling, Communist Party newspaper Granma said.
The changes are the latest reform under President Raul Castro, who has modestly liberalized Cuba's Soviet-style economy. They are sure to please Cubans who have chafed at the country's travel restrictions.
The process of obtaining the needed documents has been time-consuming and expensive, with no guarantee at the end that the government would grant permission to leave.
The difficulty in travel has helped fuel charges for years that freedoms are limited in Cuba.
"There have been many expectations for many years about a new travel law. It's a big step forward that will save us money and simplify the process," said office worker Rafael Pena as he headed to work in Havana.
Prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has complained repeatedly about being denied travel permits by the authorities, said she would test the lifting of restrictions as soon as they take effect. She said there may still be some obstacles to traveling abroad.
"My friends tell me not to get my hopes up about the next immigration law," Sanchez said. "They say I'm on the 'black list' but I'm still going to give it a try."
Some analysts described the travel move as a dramatic step forward.
"This is truly important for the future of revolutionary Cuba," said Hal Klepak, a Cuba expert who is a professor of history and warfare studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.
The changes are part of work "to update the current migratory policy adjusting it to prevailing conditions in the present and foreseeable future," Granma said.
The measure extends to 24 months, from the current 11, the amount of time Cubans can be out of the country without losing rights and property, and they can seek an extension, Granma said.
In theory, the changes should make it easier for Cubans to not only travel but to work abroad and return home when they are ready. But they will still have to obtain visas from most countries.
Granma said restrictions would still be in place for some people, likely to include doctors and other professionals who Cuba does not want to leave.
"Those measures aimed at preserving the human capital created by the Revolution from the theft of talents practiced by the powerful nations shall remain in force," it said.
"The long-awaited travel measure brings a modicum of rationality to what had long been an enormous source of political discontent," said Julia Sweig, a U.S.-Latin American policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington.
"Once the United States stops its policy of inducing Cuban doctors to defect, perhaps they, too, will enjoy such freedom," Sweig said.
"This reform responds to the Cuban population's highest priority wish to be able to leave and return to the island freely. It not only gives Cubans greater autonomy but it also offers the promise of a more vibrant economy, with more remittances sent from abroad, and more Cubans engaged in both exit and return," said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a Washington group opposed to the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
"Like earlier decisions legalizing the personal sales of homes and cars, this is another step in the direction of loosening restrictions and opening up Cuban society," she added.
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Tom Brown and Will Dunham)
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