By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's new, freer travel policy took effect on Monday and for some notable Cuban dissidents it turned out to offer greater freedom than they had expected.
Well-known government opponents Yoani Sanchez and Guillermo Farinas were told they would be granted passports and allowed to come and go after years of being denied that right.
Under laws put into effect to slow migration after the 1959 revolution, Cubans were required to get an exit visa from the government and a letter of invitation from someone in their destination country, but the new policy drops both.
Farinas, who from his home in Santa Clara has staged numerous hunger strikes against government policy, said, to his surprise, he was visited at home by officials who told him he would be able to travel freely.
"I was really skeptical because there was an article in the new law that said those Cubans who threaten the public interest won't be able to leave Cuba. I thought I was in that sphere, but it looks like not," said Farinas, a psychologist.
He said he would get his passport renewed soon and planned to go to Europe to pick up several prizes he had won but been unable to collect. They included the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2010.
Sanchez, well known internationally for her blog "Generation Y," could not be reached, but posted her good news on Twitter.
She said went to a Havana passport office on Monday, where "the functionary who attended me has assured me that when I have the passport I will be able to travel. I still don't believe it!" she wrote. "When I am on the plane, I'll believe it!"
Sanchez said Cuban authorities had denied her trips on 20 occasions. She said she expected to get a passport in early February.
Fellow dissident Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission of Human Rights, said it remained to be seen if Farinas or Sanchez truly will be allowed to travel.
"Until they are on that airplane we can't be sure of anything. It has happened in the past that people have arrived at the airport and the government has said no," Sanchez told Reuters.
The new policy has prompted long lines at passport offices in recent weeks and did so again on Monday as Cubans queued up to apply for new passports or renew the ones they have.
Some did not realize it, but they will still face obstacles from many countries that will require them to get visas and letters of invitation.
And in a country with an average monthly salary of $19, money will be a problem for many.
Possibly because of that, lines at popular embassies such as Mexico and Canada were normal and the same was true at the U.S. Interests Section, said spokeswoman Lynn Roche.
"It's all by appointment here, so we're not seeing anything different," she said. The United States does not have an embassy in Cuba because the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations.
In line at the Mexican embassy in Havana's Miramar district, 18-year-old Yaser Hernandez praised Cuban leaders for changing the travel laws.
"It gives us the possibility of knowing other countries, other lands, to be able to know something beyond our own country. It's a privilege for us Cubans, for all of us to have that possibility that our government has given us," he said.
At the Havana airport, Cuban-American Jesus Sanchez, 60, said the travel reform was important for U.S.-Cuba relations, which have been mostly sour since the revolution.
"I believe it's a historic day. The tensions that have been there for many years are thawing out," he said.
The irony of the changes, said John McAuliff, head of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development is that Cubans are now freer to travel to the United States than Americans are to Cuba.
Most Americans must obtain a license from the U.S. government to go to Cuba, which is 90 miles from Florida.
"Cuba now provides greater freedom of travel to virtually all of its citizens than does the U.S. Our version of the expensive and bureaucratic white card (exit visa) is the expensive and bureaucratic people-to-people license restricted to group travel," he said.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Christopher Wilson)