New York State In-depth

US Reopening of Visa and Consular Services at the Embassy in Cuba

HAVANA (AP) — The U.S. Embassy in Cuba reopened visa and consular services on Wednesday, the first time since a spate of unexplained health incidents among diplomatic staff in 2017 that reduced the American presence in Havana.

The embassy confirmed this week that it will begin processing immigrant visas, prioritizing family reunification permits for Cubans in the US and others such as the Diversity Visa Lottery.

The resumption comes amid the largest exodus from Cuba in decades, which has put pressure on the Biden administration to open more legal avenues for Cubans and to engage in dialogue with the Cuban government despite historically strained relations.

They are expected to issue at least 20,000 visas a year, although that’s just a drop in the bucket of the migratory tide fueled by the island’s deepening economic and political crises.

In late December, US authorities reported that Cubans were stopped 34,675 times along the Mexican border in November, up 21% from 28,848 times in October.

From month to month this number has gradually increased. Cubans are now the second-largest nationality after Mexicans to appear at the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows.

The growing migration is due to a complex set of factors, including economic, energy and political crises, as well as deep discontent among Cubans.

While the vast majority of Cuban migrants enter the US via flights to Nicaragua and cross over land at the US-Mexico border, thousands more have also made a perilous journey by sea. They travel 90 miles to the Florida coast, often arriving in rickety, poorly constructed boats full of migrants.

The exodus from Cuba is also being compounded by increasing migration to the US from other countries such as Haiti and Venezuela, forcing the US government to grapple with an increasingly complex situation on its southern border.

The renewal of visa work at the embassy comes after a series of migration talks and visits to Havana by US officials in recent months, and could also be a sign of a slow thawing between the two governments.

“Participating in these talks underscores our commitment to holding constructive discussions with the government of Cuba, where appropriate, to advance U.S. interests,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement in November following a visit by an American delegation to Cuba .

The small steps are a far cry from relations under President Barack Obama, who eased many Cold War-era American sanctions during his tenure and paid a historic visit to the island in 2016.

Visa and consular services were shut down on the island in 2017 after embassy staff were hit by a series of health incidents, alleged sonic attacks that remain largely unexplained.

As a result, many Cubans who wanted to legally immigrate to the United States had to fly to places like Guyana before they could emigrate or be reunited with their family.

While relations between Cuba and the United States have always been strained, they have been aggravated following the closure of the embassy and the Trump administration’s tightening of sanctions on Cuba.

Under President Joe Biden, the US eased some restrictions on things like remittances and family travel from Miami to Cuba, but fell short of the hopes of many in Cuba that a Biden presidency would return the island to its “Obama era.”

Restrictions on tourist travel to Cuba and the import and export of many goods remain in place.

Tensions have also been fueled by the Cuban government’s harsh treatment of participants in the 2021 protests on the island, including harsh prison sentences for minors, which the Biden administration has consistently criticized.

Cuban officials have repeatedly expressed optimism about talks with the US and steps to reopen visa services. Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Cossio said in November that ensuring migration through safe and legal channels was a “common goal” for both countries.

But Cossio also blamed US sanctions for tens of thousands fleeing the island, saying that “there is no doubt that policies aimed at lowering a population’s standard of living are a direct driver of migration”.

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