April 22, 2016 at 3:13 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Cuba reverses controversial immigration policy

The Cuban government on April 22, 2016, announced that those who were born on the Communist island will be allowed to travel there by sea. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Cuban government on April 22, 2016, announced that those who were born on the Communist island will be allowed to travel there by sea. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Cuban government announced on Friday that it will allow those who were born on the Communist island to travel there by sea.

Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, published a statement in which the Cuban government said it will “authorize the entry and exit of Cuban citizens, regardless of their immigration status, as passengers and crew on” merchant and cruise ships.

The statement notes the new regulation will take effect on April 26. It also says that Cuban nationals still need to obtain “the necessary visa” in order to visit the country.

The announcement comes nine days before the Adonia, a 704-passenger cruise ship that Carnival Corp.’s Fathom brand operates, is scheduled to depart Miami for a week-long trip to Cuba. The Adonia — which will dock in Havana and the cities of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba — will be the first cruise ship to sail from the U.S. to the Communist island in more than 50 years.

The Cuban government had previously banned anyone who was born on the Communist island from traveling there by sea.

A lawyer filed lawsuits earlier this month on behalf of four Cuban Americans who claim they suffered discrimination because Carnival prohibited them from booking the Cuba cruise. Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said earlier this week that his company would postpone trips to Cuba if the country’s government did not change the policy towards Cuban nationals.

“We made history a few weeks ago and we’re making history again today of being a part of it,” Donald told reporters on Friday during a Miami press conference as WPLG, a South Florida television station, reported. “Most importantly, we are a part of a positive future and that’s what we’re most proud of.”

Brand g Vacations, a Minneapolis-based company that caters to LGBT travelers, organized a cruise around Cuba in February 2015. The Florida-based Al and Chuck Travel, which also caters to LGBT travelers, has organized three cruises to the island so far this year.

“I would be in favor of having those restrictions lifted,” Jeff Gundvaldson, co-owner of Brand g Vacations, told the Washington Blade earlier this week during a telephone interview.

U.S. embargo against Cuba remains in place

President Obama announced in late 2014 the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba that ended in 1961.

Cuba and the U.S. reopened their respective embassies in Washington and Havana last summer. Obama last month became the first U.S. president to travel to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

Supporters of Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education, have credited her with championing LGBT rights on the Communist island.

Cristal, a transgender woman from Havana who is a member of the Trans Network of Cuba, which is affiliated with the country's National Center for Sexual Education, holds a Pride flag in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015, during the commemorations of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Cristal, a transgender woman from Havana who is a member of the Trans Network of Cuba, which is affiliated with the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, holds a Pride flag in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015, during the commemorations of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates and other critics of the Castro government maintain that the country’s human rights record has not improved since the U.S. and Cuba normalized relations. The U.S. embargo that prohibits Americans from traveling to the Communist island without permission also remains in place.

“It will be important to advance in the agreement and implementation of bilateral cooperation mechanisms in these areas to prevent and respond to terrorist actions against Cuba, which gave rise to the regulation stipulating that Cuban citizens residing abroad could only enter our country by air, in order to prevent the use of vessels to carry out such acts, of which Cuba has been the victim on numerous occasions since the triumph of the Revolution in 1959,” reads the Cuban government’s statement on Granma’s website.

“The continued ban on U.S. citizens freely traveling to Cuba contrasts with these measures adopted by Cuba,” it adds.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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