The United States has a target of issuing 20,000 migrant visas per year to Cubans and processes tourist visa applications on a case-by-case basis.
However, many thousands of Cubans have obtained dual Spanish citizenship through ancestral claims in recent years, and as such are eligible to travel to the United States without a visa.
Consular officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Washington's diplomatic mission on the island, acknowledge a huge backlog.
In October, the Interests Section more than doubled its capacity for processing nonimmigrant visa applications, and the wait time for an interview has fallen from nearly five years to less than a year, according to U.S. diplomats. The decision was made independently of Cuba's announcement on the exit visa, they say.
The Cuban law also increases the amount of time people can spend overseas without losing residency rights back home, from 11 months to two years. President Raul Castro's government apparently hopes that such extended stays for work or education will help the island in the long term as people send money to relatives, and potentially return with saved earnings to invest in the local economy.
The Cuban exit visa has been a key point of contention for many critics of the Communist government, who seized upon the travel restrictions to call the country an island prison.
But Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican congresswoman from Florida, said the new travel law does not change her concerns about human rights on the island.
"It's an escape valve from the regime's disastrous economic policies," said Ros-Lehtinen. "What the Cuban people want and desire is liberty and democracy."
Some analysts say the change also puts pressure on Washington's "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, which lets nearly all Cubans who make it to the United States stay and fast-tracks them for permanent residency, and throws the spotlight on U.S. embargo rules that bar most American travel to Cuba.
At least when it comes to crossing the Florida Straits, "Cuba now provides greater freedom of travel to virtually all of its citizens than does the U.S.," said John McAuliff of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which lobbies for engagement between Washington and Cuba.
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana, Jorge Sainz in Madrid and Suzette Laboy in Miami contributed to this report.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP
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