Almost 300K Cubans abroad visited island in '09

HAVANA (AP) — Nearly 300,000 Cubans living abroad visited their homeland last year, the island's foreign minister said Wednesday, but he insisted a loosening of travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans coming to the island was "insufficient."

It was unclear if the 2009 figure was a record since the government rarely releases complete figures on the number of Cubans living overseas and the frequency of their visits. But Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said about 296,000 Cubans living abroad came back last year compared to just 37,000 in 1994.

He did not say how many came from the United States, but the overwhelming majority of islanders overseas live in the U.S., mostly in southern Florida and New Jersey. There are other sizable Cuban communities in Spain, Mexico and Argentina.

In April, President Obama lifted restrictions on Cubans living in the United States who want to travel or send money to the island. The move erased limits imposed by the administration of former President George W. Bush, but has been dismissed by Cuban officials as inadequate.

Rodriguez said Washington has sought to turn Cubans who choose to leave the island into "refugees who have fled in search of liberty."

Cuba's government offers no statistics on how many of its citizens have left the island since Fidel Castro toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year's Day 1959, though experts put the number at as many as 1.5 million — more than 13% of today's entire Cuban population of about 11.2 million.

Under a 1994 agreement with the Cuban government designed to stop mass illegal immigration, the United States offers 20,000 visas to Cuban immigrants per year. Tens of thousands more flee the island secretly each year, and nearly all who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay.

But even moving away from Cuba legally is not easy. Cubans wanting to emigrate must obtain official permission from the communist government to leave, a special passport and, often, a string of additional visas — as well as having to meet the requirements for the destination country.

Once outside, immigrants face strict Cuban government rules on how long they have to wait before they can visit the island anew, and how long they can stay.

The foreign minister's comments kicked off a three-day immigration forum featuring 450 Cubans who live overseas, including 200 from the United States. Those invited were considered supportive of the single-party communist system.

"This is a positive event," said Delia Zurdo, a Miami resident. "I've lived there for 42 years, but I miss my country and I want to help defend it, and defend it until I die." ... Cuba_N.htm