Thousands of eyes were glued to national television screens this last Friday. The social networks and text messages also vibrated nervously. A strong rumor had been growing all week, feeding the hopes of Cubans on and off the island, killing sleep. Initiated and fed by official voices, the speculations centered on the possibility of the National Assembly announcing travel reforms.
In a country where citizens face severe limitations on leaving and entering their own territory, such suspicions are too important not to pay attention. Bags packed, airplane tickets reserved, and long-delayed hugs between relatives not seen for decades about to be realized. But the illusion lasted only a few days and was deflated with the same haste with which passports are stamped "denied."
Instead of proclaiming the end of the demeaning Exit Permit -- also known as the "White Card" -- Raul Castro reported on a pardon for more than 2,900 prisoners. People sentenced for diverse crimes, among which were some against State Security. In the words of the official press release, it affected prisoners, "older than 60, sick, women, and also young people with prior criminal histories." A gesture that could be aimed at paving the way for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI this coming March.
The General thus preferred to open the doors of the small prisons, seeing that he is still not disposed to pull back the bureaucratic bars of the great prison. The island as a penitentiary and the immigration officials as stern gatekeepers with a bunch of keys hanging from their belts.
Although the president reaffirmed his "unchanging will to gradually introduce the required changes" in the current migratory policies, he could not prevent a snort of frustration bursting forth from the mouths of those who listened at home. For the umpteenth time hope withered and the embrace of an uncle or brother who would not be returning remained annoyingly locked in the trunk of the postponement.
The family and friends of the newly pardoned, however, did have reasons to prepare a Christmas with greater happiness. Although the penal code keeps intact that crimes that led them to prison, those released this Christmas feel themselves to be the beneficiaries of a magnanimous wink from the seat of power.
The presidential indulgence has touched them this time, but thousands of Cubans wait for a similar gesture in matters of basic human rights: A pardon that manages to open the heavy gate that blocks free travel, coming and going from one's country without having to ask for permission.