By Rosa Tania Valdez and Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is abuzz with speculation that President Raul Castro will soon announce policy changes making it easier for Cubans to travel abroad from their communist island.
Without being specific, he has promised to ease restrictions that make it difficult for most Cubans to leave the island and return, one of the biggest gripes about life under the government in power since Cuba's 1959 revolution.
Castro could disclose the reforms as soon as Friday, when he will speak to a session of the National Assembly, but there are also rumors they will be announced in early January.
The government has been tight-lipped about his plans, but Castro said in an August speech to the assembly that change is coming.
He said officials were working to update migration policy with an eye toward increasing ties with Cubans who have left the Caribbean island and are living abroad.
Today's emigrants are leaving for economic reasons, not political, he said, and "almost all still love their family and the homeland where they were born."
Cuban exiles, who send more than $1 billion a year in remittances from abroad, are an important source of money for the cash-strapped island and are expected to bankroll small businesses and real estate purchases now permitted under economic reforms by Castro.
How far he plans to go with travel changes remains to be seen, but Cubans' hopes are high.
They want him to eliminate costly and time consuming requirements for such things as government permission to both leave and return to the island and for a letter of invitation from a friend or relative in the country they intend to visit.
They also would like to see an end to limits on how long they can be away and on the right to bring their children along on trips, both of which are in place to encourage their return.
Cuba imposed travel restrictions to slow an exodus that began with the 1959 revolution and has continued only partly abated. An estimated 2 million Cubans live abroad with most of those in the U.S. and particularly in Miami.
Castro said many of the rules "played their role in certain circumstances," but then "lasted unnecessarily."
Cubans agree. They say they would like to visit family members abroad and see more of the world than the island most have never left.
"Everybody has the right to travel, to know other countries for family reasons, economic reasons, work reasons, and I think it would help the development of Cuban society," student Jose Ricardo told Reuters in Havana.
"I have family in the United States and it would be good for me to go see them," said retiree Ricardo Cuesta. "It would be good for everyone."
Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who has been denied exit from the country since 2004, said on Twitter that her bags are packed and she was "ready to test the limits of the possible" by going to the airport as soon as changes are announced.
"Rights are not to begged for, they are to be exercised," she said.
Even if the government loosens travel restrictions, Cubans still will face visa requirements in many countries, including the United States.
But under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, the U.S. also allows them in if they cross the Florida Straits and set foot on the beach.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Anthony Boadle)