Will Cuba let its dissidents travel?

There were long lines at Cuban passport agencies as citizens lined up to test the state's new loosened laws, which -- it is hoped -- will make it easier for Cubans to obtain passports to travel abroad, and allow some Cubans who have left the country to return. One big question is whether the rules will apply to Cuban dissidents. In November, blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote for FP:

In my case, the prohibition on leaving the island has come to feel like a life sentence. In just five years, the Cuban government has refused to grant my requests to travel outside the country 20 times. My drawers are full of letters of invitation, airline tickets expired for never having been used, and even photos of events and ceremonies held abroad where an empty chair sat in my place.

But she wasn't all that hopeful about the new laws:

The dissidents, activists, independent journalists, and bloggers, who were previously unable to travel, will very likely still not be able to do so next year. The crafters of the new law were careful to build in features the government can use to punish its political adversaries with imprisonment on the island. In articles 23 and 25 of the new decree, for instance, we learn that passports can be denied "when reasons of National Defense and Security require it," or "when for other reasons in the public interest as determined by the empowered authorities."

So we shouldn't hold out much hope that in the coming year the Ladies in White, Sakharov Prize Winner Guillermo Farinas, and other members of the opposition will finally be able to accept their international invitations.

I believe it's possible I may hold the sad record of being the person on this planet with the most unused travel visas. My passport is covered in stickers that say I am -- or was -- welcome in a dozen countries. I've left a lot of people waiting in airports.

Although the new law leaves the government the ability to continue to prevent me from accepting those international invitations, I want to believe there is hope. So, I have packed my suitcase, put in some clothes, a pair of shoes, and the image of the Virgin of Safe Journeys given to me by a friend several years ago. On Jan. 14, I will be in my local office to ask for my passport. An official dressed in olive green will tell me yes or no.

So how did it go? According to the Miami Herald, so far so good:

In a hint of the possibly profound impact of the changes, Havana blogger Yoani Sanchez and dissident Guillermo Fariñas, who together have been denied permission to travel abroad more than 24 times, said authorities told them they will be allowed to leave and return.

Read more here:

“I still don’t believe it,” Sánchez, who stood in line since late Sunday outside the passport office in her neighborhood, noted in a Tweet on Monday. An office employee told her she would get a new passport in 15 days, Sanchez added, because her current passport is too full of visas she was never allowed to use. “I swing between hope and skepticism.”

Read more here:

Other dissidents are hopeful as well,  including Fariñas and Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, who have not been able to travel to Europe to pick up the Sakharov Prizes for human rights that they have been awarded for their work. Stay tuned.




Russian defense minister: Soldiers must wear socks

New Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has announced an upgrade for the country's military equipment: socks. Shoigu says that by the end of this year, the armed forces must phase out the traditional "portyanki," or footwraps, that Russian soldiers have worn for centuries. 

Claire Bigg explains the tradition:

They were introduced into the Russian Army by Tsar Peter the Great, who first saw Dutch soldiers bandage their feet during a visit to the Netherlands.

Advocates say footwraps are more resistant than socks and offer better protection from the cold.

For many war veterans, the art of bandaging one's feet is an important hallmark of a real soldier.

But critics say footwraps are unpractical and cause blisters. Since foot cloths are designed to tightly hug the foot, sweating can also be an issue.

Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic countries have all done away with the footwraps since the fall of the Soviet Union, but they've stubbornly hung on in Russia despite the efforts of several defense ministers to move to socks. We'll see if Shoigu has more success.