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I. Summary and Recommendations

Over the past four decades, hundreds of thousands of people have left Cuba, many of them seeking basic rights denied them by the government of Fidel Castro, such as the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.  Their ability to pursue these freedoms abroad has been curtailed, however, by Cuba’s denial of another fundamental right—the right to freedom of movement.

Cuba routinely refuses to grant its citizens permission to leave their country and often denies those who have left permission to return.  These restrictions have resulted in the involuntary separation of many Cuban families, violating the rights of children to be with their parents. 

The emotional toll 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.”

Yet Cuba is not alone in imposing travel restrictions that divide families.  Over the past four decades, the United States has used Cuba’s dismal human rights record to justify an economic embargo aimed at removing Fidel Castro from power.  Not only has this policy failed to bring democracy to the island, it has provided Castro with a convenient justification for his government’s repressive practices.  Recently, rather than abandon or modify the embargo, the administration of George W. Bush has sought to strengthen it through travel restrictions that, like the policies of Fidel Castro, undermine Cubans’ right to freedom of movement.

As part of a broader ban on travel to Cuba, the Bush administration imposed strict limits on family-related travel 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 administration’s narrow definition of “family.”

As with the travel rules imposed by Cuba, these new restrictions have had a profound impact on many Cuban families.  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.” 

The travel restrictions imposed by Cuba and the United States run counter to the human rights principle that all people have a right to return to their own country.  This principle of international law, established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, applies in this case not only to Cuban citizens, but also to Cuban Americans who have such close ties to Cuba that they cannot be considered mere aliens.  Cuba’s travel policies, by denying exit visas to some of its citizens, also violate their right to leave their country.  And, in the case of children separated from their parents by the travel restrictions, both countries’ policies infringe on their right to family unity enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with more than fifty Cubans and Cuban Americans whose families have endured forced separation caused by the travel restrictions imposed by Cuba, the United States, or both.  These cases illustrate the profound hardships that prolonged separation causes families—from the distress of children forced to grow up without seeing their parents to the anguish of adults unable to bid farewell to loved ones who are dying.

The cases also illustrate why freedom of movement is a fundamental right for people confronting repressive regimes, as well as for migrants seeking to maintain their ties with family members in the country they have left behind.

Cuba’s Restrictions on Travel

The Cuban government forbids its citizens from leaving or returning to Cuba without first obtaining official authorization.  Unauthorized travel can result in criminal prosecution.

Cuba denies exit permits to hundreds, possibly thousands, of people every year.  A large proportion of the Cubans denied travel permits are health care professionals.  Those denied are routinely told that the Public Health Ministry’s “Resolution 54” requires trained medical professionals applying for exit visas to wait three to five years before their application will be considered.

Cuba justifies the restriction on travel permits for health care professionals as a measure to avoid “brain drain.”  It argues that skilled professionals who have received an education from the Cuban state have an obligation to serve the Cuban population.  Yet it applies this policy not only to recent graduates of medical school, but also to veteran doctors, including a sixty-two-year-old neurologist who played a central role in developing Cuba’s advanced neuroscience program.  For more than a decade, the Cuban government has denied this prominent doctor permission to visit her son and grandchildren in Argentina on the grounds that her “brain is property of the government of Cuba” and therefore she must remain on the island, even though she resigned her medical position in 1994.

Cuba also regularly denies visas to the relatives of those whom it calls “deserters”: people who left the country without permission or refused to return at the end of an authorized trip.  It also refuses these “deserters” permission to return to Cuba, thereby cutting them off entirely from their families on the island. 

The forced separation that results from these travel restrictions can be devastating for families.  A Cuban mother in Germany said that, when the Cuban government denied her son an exit visa, it was like “sentencing [him] to live like an orphan with live parents.”  Another parent described the emotional toll of his ten-year separation from his daughter: “Every time we served a plate of food, knowing that our daughter was far away and not at our side was very hard .… These wounds never heal.”

In addition to the emotional hardship of separation, efforts to circumvent the restrictions can prove very costly, whether it is the grave dangers faced fleeing the country on the high seas or the exorbitant bribes paid to corrupt officials to arrange travel permits.

Given these possibilities, and the fear of prolonged separation from family, Cuba’s travel restrictions provide the authorities with a powerful tool for controlling what its citizens say about the government.  One Cuban rights advocate who has been denied permission to visit his family in Florida, described the travel policy as a “weapon of deterrence used to intimidate, repress, and control various types of activities.”  Similarly, the prominent neurologist who has denied an exit visa described the restriction on travel as “a form of psychological blackmail” that discourages people from criticizing the government.  “They think that if they shut up and please the government maybe someday the government will give them permission.”

U.S. Restrictions on Cuban Travel

Evaluating the U.S. embargo on Cuba, a report by President George W. Bush’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba concluded in 2004 that one of the main obstacles to promoting a “free Cuba” has been the behavior of the Cuban people themselves.

According to the presidential commission, Cuban Americans and Cubans in the United States make regular visits to their families on the island and generate “a significant cash windfall to the regime” by paying the high travel fees imposed by the Cuban government and spending dollars in the state-run stores on the island.  To cut off this revenue source, the Bush administration imposed strict restrictions on family-related travel in June 2004.  Under the new rules, individuals are allowed to visit their relatives in Cuba only once every three years, and only if these relatives are members of their “immediate family,” defined to include spouse, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent, sibling, or spouse of one of these people.

The Bush administration maintains that individuals are still able to visit their families in Cuba.  “An individual can decide when they want to travel once every three years and the decision is up to them,” said Dan Fisk, deputy assistant secretary of Western Hemisphere affairs.  “So if they have a dying relative, they have to figure out when they want to travel.”

But this choice can be an excruciatingly difficult one to make, especially for people with aging relatives, for whom death could come at any time, or those with multiple family members whose health is at risk.  Moreover, in many cases the issue is not saying goodbye to ailing relatives so much as helping them to live.  The trips serve to bring money and scarce medical supplies, and they grant a temporary respite for other relatives who are taking care of the sick family member.  The visits also serve to provide emotional support that can be critical for helping the sick relative to summon the strength to overcome illness or merely endure suffering.  “Each time I go there is like giving her an injection of happiness,” one woman said of her ailing mother.  “It makes her want to keep living.”

A visit once every three years is not even an option for those Cubans whose only relatives on the island fall outside of the definition of “immediate family.”  The administration has defended this particular restriction by trivializing its impact on the families involved.  “[W]hat are we supposed to say to them?” Roger Noriega, then serving as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, asked one reporter.  “We’re going to continue to allow this money to be shoveled into the coffers of a regime that’s going to keep them in chains under a dictatorship because we want to preserve the right of people to visit their aunts?” 

Yet “visiting aunts” is not a trivial matter for many Cubans.  Several interviewed for this report spoke of aunts and uncles who had raised them as if they were in fact their parents.  Many described relatives who fall outside the “immediate family” definition as being integral parts of their family. 

The arbitrary restrictions placed on family travel oblige many desperate Cuban Americans to resort to illegal travel in order to help their families.  Many interviewed for this report expressed great frustration that the administration’s new restrictions forced them to choose between caring for their families and respecting the law. 

When confronted with the hardships caused by the policy, the Bush administration’s ultimate defense has been to shift the responsibility to the Cuban government.  “[T]he problem of the Cuban situation is not that families are divided,” said Noriega.  “The problem is that half the family lives in a dictatorship.”  Yet clearly, for proponents of the embargo, it is also a problem that the Cubans in the United States insist on visiting and supporting that other “half”—thereby generating revenue for the Cuban government.  In this sense, the problem for the administration is that the families are not divided enough.

Many of the Cuban expatriates interviewed for this report said that they had abandoned Cuba because they opposed the way it was being governed.  But they also insisted that they would not abandon their families.  “You can oppose the regime, the policies,” one said, “But you’re never going to oppose your family.” 

Many Cuban-born Americans said they felt that, with the travel restrictions, the United States was betraying the very values that it was promoting for Cuba.  “I came to this country in search of freedom,” said another. “And now I feel like someone is taking away this freedom that I came here for.”


To the Cuban Government

  • The Cuban government should abolish restrictions on travel that violate the right of any individual to leave his or her country and to return to it.  In particular, the government should reform its criminal code to eliminate the crimes of illegal exit and illegal entry (articles 216 and 217) for Cuban nationals. 
  • The government should also end all policies and regulations that serve to separate families.  In particular, the government should abolish the restriction, in place since 1999, barring those who have left without permission or overstayed their travel authorizations from returning to Cuba for five years.
  • The government should end the practice of obliging those traveling abroad to leave their children behind in Cuba.
  • The government should reform the Public Health Ministry’s “Resolution 54,” which prevents doctors and other health care professionals from leaving the island for three to five years from the time that they apply for permission to leave.  Any new regulation should provide for less coercive ways to encourage doctors to practice medicine in Cuba before emigrating, such as creating economic incentives or establishing a residency requirement for medical students to obtain their degrees.  Exceptions should be considered, moreover, for doctors and other health care professionals seeking reunification with children abroad.
  • Any regulations limiting travel should be made public.  Although many Cubans we interviewed had been told that “Resolution 54” prevented their leaving, none had ever seen a copy of it.
  • In cases of Cuban children whose parents live outside the country, the only factor determining whether or not the children may leave should be the best interests of the child.  Under no circumstances should a child be kept in Cuba as punishment for the actions of one or more of his or her parents.        

To the U.S. Government

  • The U.S. government should terminate the economic embargo on Cuba. The embargo is not a calibrated policy intended to produce specific reforms, but a sledgehammer approach aimed at nothing short of overthrowing the government. While failing at its central objective, the embargo's indiscriminate nature has hurt the population as a whole, and provided the government with a justification for its repressive policies.
  • Until this step is taken, the U.S. government should eliminate restrictions on travel that undermine family unity and the right of individuals to return to their country of origin.
  • In particular, the U.S. government should eliminate restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cubans—including Cuban Americans who were born in Cuba or have relatives on the island.
  • Until the travel restrictions are eliminated, the U.S. government should provide 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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