By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - The number of Cubans leaving their country has increased steadily in recent years, the government reported on Wednesday, reaching levels not seen since 1994 when tens of thousands took to the sea in makeshift rafts and rickety boats.
Separately, the U.S. State Department on Wednesday announced it is lengthening most visitor visas for Cubans from six months to five years, allowing them to make multiple U.S. visits over the five-year period instead of repeatedly applying and paying the $160 fee for the privilege.
Cuba liberalized travel restrictions in January, making it much easier and less expensive for residents to travel and to return after they emigrate, and eliminating the confiscation of property of migrants, perhaps in hopes of slowing the outflow.
The new Cuban travel measures extend to 24 months the amount of time Cubans can be out of the country without losing rights and they can seek an extension of up to 24 months more.
In theory, the changes on both sides of the Florida Straits should make it easier for Cubans not only to travel but to work in the United States and return home when they want.
According to Cuba's annual demographic report for 2012 (http://www.onei.cu/anuariodemografico2012.htm), 46,662 Cubans migrated permanently in 2012, the largest annual figure since more than 47,000 left the communist-ruled island in 1994 after what international observers dubbed the "Rafter Crisis."
Over the last five years, Cubans have been emigrating at an average annual rate of more than 39,000, the report said, higher than in any other five-year period since the earliest years of the revolution.
The figures are not good news for a government facing a demographic crisis similar to some developed countries where fewer young people must support a growing elderly population.
The report did not break down migration by age, but it is common knowledge that many leaving the country are young and educated and a large proportion eventually wind up in the United States where they are quickly granted residency even if they entered illegally.
The U.S. announcement followed the resumption of immigration talks earlier this month after a two-year suspension.
The Obama administration believes the visa extension "will increase people-to-people contact, support civil society in Cuba; and enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people," a State Department spokesperson said.
It would also help to further reduce the wait time for visa interview appointments at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Since 1994 when the last mass immigration wave increased tensions between the two ideological foes, on-again-off-again immigration talks have led to a more orderly, safe and legal flow of Cubans to the United States, though thousands still arrive by crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders and some still perish at sea.
Over the past half century, thousands of Cubans have died trying to cross the treacherous Florida Straits in flimsy boats and homemade rafts, while hundreds of thousands more have completed the journey, many of them in the mass migrations in 1965, 1980 and 1994.
The United States now accepts about 20,000 Cubans annually via legal immigration, as well as family members seeking reunification, and also takes in those who manage to reach U.S. shores without being intercepted.
Under the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, it turns back Cubans picked up at sea. Almost 1,300 Cubans were repatriated to Cuba in 2012 after failing to make it to U.S. soil.
(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Ken Wills)