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Both Cuba and the United States have imposed harsh travel restrictions that cause the forced separation of Cuban families, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Based on interviews with dozens of Cubans and Cuban-Americans, the report documents the terrible human cost of these restrictions, which have torn young children away from their parents, and prevented adults from caring for ailing relatives—including in some cases dying parents.

“The U.S. and Cuban travel restrictions reflect an utter disregard for the welfare of families,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Both countries are sacrificing people’s freedom of movement to promote dead-end policies.”

The 69-page report, “Families Torn Apart: The High Cost of U.S. and Cuban Travel Restrictions,” shows how the travel policies of both countries infringe upon the internationally recognized right to freedom of movement, which includes the right to leave and return to one’s own country. In the case of parents and children forced to reside in different countries, the policies also violate the international prohibition on the involuntary separation of families.

As the Human Rights Watch report documents, Cuba routinely refuses to grant its citizens permission to leave their country and often denies those who have left without permission the right to return. Cuba also frequently denies citizens engaged in authorized travel the right to bring their children with them overseas, as a means to guarantee the parents’ return. Given the widespread fear of forced family separation, the travel restrictions provide the Cuban government with a powerful tool for punishing defectors and silencing critics.

The emotional toll of Cuba’s travel policies on family members is immeasurable. A Cuban physicist who now lives in Brazil, for example, has never been able to meet his six-year-old son. His ex-wife and son are in Cuba, but because he violated Cuban travel restrictions by refusing to return from an authorized trip abroad in 2000, the Cuban government has barred him from visiting the island to see his child.

A Cuban mother in Mexico, who was separated from her sons for three years in similar circumstances, told Human Rights Watch that she felt like the Cuban government “tore out a piece of my life.”

The report also documents the impact of the restrictions on family-related travel that the Bush administration enacted in June 2004. Under the new rules, individuals are allowed to visit relatives in Cuba only once every three years and only if these relatives fit the Bush administration’s narrow definition of “family,” which excludes uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces and cousins.

A Cuban-American woman in Miami was forced to end her frequent trips to care for her ailing father, a widower with advanced Alzheimer’s disease and no immediate relatives left in Cuba. She was unable to help or comfort him as he succumbed to depression, stopped eating, and eventually died.

A U.S. Army sergeant, denied permission to visit his two sons in Cuba during a two-week furlough from active duty in Iraq, was forced to return to the front lines feeling he had been unable to “fulfill [his] obligation as a father.”

“For decades the Cuban government has systematically denied the basic rights of its citizens,” Vivanco said. “But rather than promoting freedom in Cuba, the Bush administration’s travel ban has undermined a basic freedom of hundreds of thousands of Cubans and Cuban Americans living here.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Cuban government to abolish restrictions on travel that violate the right to freedom of movement. In particular, the government should reform its criminal code to eliminate the crimes of illegal exit and illegal entry (articles 215, 216, and 217). It should also end all policies and regulations that serve to separate families, including the restriction barring those who have left without permission or overstayed their travel authorizations from returning to Cuba for five years.

Similarly, Human Rights Watch called upon the U.S. government to eliminate restrictions on travel that limit the ability of Cubans and Cuban Americans to visit the island. At a minimum, at least until the travel restrictions are eliminated, the U.S. government should establish humanitarian exceptions that would allow individuals to obtain permission to visit relatives in Cuba who are facing grave medical or other emergency conditions.

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