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Monica Hernandez / Eyewitness News
Email: mhernandez@wwltv.com | Twitter: @mhernandezwwl

NEW ORLEANS - New Orleans is one of the few U.S. cities approved for direct airline service to Cuba for limited types of travelers. And the demand for travel could become greater once the Communist island relaxes travel restrictions in January.

The Cuban government announced that citizens will no longer have to get an expensive exit permit or letter of invitation to leave the country. Together, the documents could cost up to 18 times the average monthly wage of $20. Cuban citizens will also be able to stay abroad longer before being required to renew paperwork. The time line will increase from 11 months to two years.

They will still be required to obtain a passport and a visa from the country to which they are traveling.

Other Communist countries, including Vietnam and the Soviet Union, made similar changes to travel restrictions as they underwent reform. But in this case, some Cuban Americans believe there's reason to be suspicious of the lifted exit visa requirements.

'A lot of people see it as a humanitarian. There's absolutely nothing humanitarian about this regime,' said Humberto Fontova, an author and commentator on political issues in Cuba.

Fontova was seven-years-old when he escaped Fidel Castro's rigid regime with his family more than 40 years ago. He believes the relaxed restrictions are mostly aimed at improving Cuba's image and economy because those who leave will likely send money back to their families.

'When the Cuban family gets it, obviously they don't go down to Walmart to [use] it, they don't go to Costco and to Academy Sporting Goods like I would go because these do not exist in Cuba,' said Fontova. 'They go to the regime-owned stores so that the regime ends up pocketing U.S. taxpayer benefits to refugees that come to the U.S. It's a racket.'

Fontova emphasizes that Cuban leaders will still ultimately maintain control who can leave the country because they will have the final say on who gets a passport.

The lightened restrictions on travel come as Cuba cautiously reforms it's economy. That includes laying off one million state employees and a very limited free market experiment.

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