Cuba's sports stars won't score freedom to travel

Most Cubans next week will have the right to travel without government permission for the first time in decades, but sports stars will still require permission to leave, an official said Tuesday.

"Professionals who are deemed essential, technicians, sports people, and (Communist Party) staff and leaders" have been informed that they still face curbs on foreign travel, said Lamberto Fraga, a high-ranking Migration and Foreign Nationals' Ministry official, and they will need a special permit.

"This group of people will be told why they cannot leave the country, and they likely understand that they are essential, which should keep them from going to seek a passport, unless they have authorization" to travel abroad, Fraga said on state television.

It was announced on Monday that doctors were not included in the group of professionals the government considers essential, but authorities did not immediately list all professionals who would be.

Cuba, the Americas' only Communist-ruled nation, is a regional sports power. Havana came in 16th place in the London Olympics in terms of total medal take.

It also faces a constant loss of its sports stars, deserting at international meets or on trips. Professional sports do not exist in Cuba.

The government announced October 16 that Cubans, starting January 14, no longer will need the reviled exit visas that have kept most in this country of 11 million from ever traveling abroad.

The visas, and invitation letters from a host, cost up to $200 in a country with an average monthly salary of less than $20.

Cubans are intensely and emotionally keen for migration reform, which has been promised but not yet delivered by President Raul Castro, 81, who took over from his brother revolutionary icon Fidel Castro in July 2006.

Separate from requests for US immigration visas, the United States gives any Cuban who reaches US soil -- by boat, land or air -- immediate residency and working rights, something it does not do for citizens of any other country.

Havana's move will put pressure on Washington to allow more Cubans to enter the country legally -- or face a potentially risky illegal flow of refugees from the cash-strapped communist-ruled Caribbean island just 145 kilometers (90 miles) south of the US state of Florida.

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