By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans are cheering a U.S. visa policy that gives them five years to travel to the United States, while Cuba's government and state-run media have largely remained silent about the new travel measure.
They still are allowed to remain in the United States for only six months, but the change in U.S. policy, which took effect on Thursday, allows them to make multiple U.S. visits over the five years instead of repeatedly applying and paying the $160 fee for the privilege.
Havana retiree Antonio Fernandez, who has visited his children and other family members in the United States, welcomed the new policy, which he said would allow more contact between divided Cuban families.
"I am in the process of applying for a visa at this very moment," Fernandez said.
"And I know well how many steps and how much money you have to pay. This measure will eliminate these problems," he said.
Cuba liberalized travel restrictions earlier this year, making it easier and less expensive for residents to travel and return home.
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 additional months.
More than 900,000 Cubans traveled abroad in 2012, according to the government and more than 46,000 emigrated, the highest number since 1994.
Cubans and Cuban-Americans had increasingly complained about the difficulty and cost for Cubans seeking to obtain a U.S. visa, although Cuban applications for U.S. visas increased by some 30 percent after Havana lifted its restrictions in January.
In the only comment so far on the new visa change, an article in Friday's edition of Granma, the Communist Party daily, carried a headline that read, "New Tool, Same Policy."
"This new visa policy does not imply a significant change in the hostile policy of the United States toward Cuba," the article said, quoting local commentators who characterized it as a pragmatic step by the United States to reduce costs to process Cuban visa requests.
Former Cuban diplomat Ramon Sanchez-Parodi told Granma that Washington's new policy would "save (the United States) expenses, time and financial and human resources."
Sanchez-Parodi said the measure also gave "the impression - and only the impression - of a more flexible policy toward Cuba."
Each week, hundreds of Cubans line up outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to apply for a visa.
The office serves as a lower-level diplomatic mission between the two ideological foes who do not have full diplomatic ties. The United States maintains a more than half-century-old trade embargo against the Caribbean island.
Rosa Maria Rodriguez, a retiree who lives in Santiago de Cuba, some 550 miles east of Havana, said the new visa policy would mean she would no longer have to make repeated trips to the Cuban capital to apply for a visa.
"Can you imagine how much money and work I will save?" she said.
On Thursday, there was a sense of growing excitement among Cubans lined up outside the Interests Section as news of the visa policy spread through the crowd.
Some Cubans left the premises with stoic expressions, others in tears after being denied a visa, but many emerged thrilled.
A woman, who walked out with her visa in hand and asked that her name not be used, said, "people are ecstatic in there."
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Jackie Frank)