U.S. says the number of visas issued in Havana increased significantly

U.S. diplomats in Havana increased the number of visas issued to Cubans by several thousand in recent months, they revealed Friday in response to a Granma newspaper column alleging that U.S. consular officials trade bribes for visas.

The column included an odd paragraph implying that island authorities are not stopping Cubans from leaving illegally by boat — a statement that is clearly false but may spark a stir in a country where many people want to emigrate.

Written by historian Néstor García Iturbide, the column was first published in the pro-government Cuban blog La Pupila Insomne — The Sleepless Pupil. But its reprint in the Communist Party’s Granma newspaper appeared to give it an official seal of approval.

García’s column focused on his allegation of corruption and complaint of restrictive visa policies at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, officially called the U.S. Interests Section (USINT) in the absence of full diplomatic relations.

Some Cubans “have paid functionaries to receive their visa,” he wrote. “There are functionaries who get angry [when offered bribes], others who allow themselves to be loved. The people waiting in line know who is who.”

Garcia did not identify any corrupt officials by name or citizenship. U.S. State Department officials sent from Washington hold the main jobs at UNINT’s consular section, but Cuban citizens hired locally handle some of the work.

The USINT immediately issued a statement saying that the mission takes all allegations of corruption in its ranks seriously and asking anyone with reliable information on such cases to call its main telephone number.

Garcia also alleged that the USINT has not been issuing enough visas to Cubans who want to visit the United States, “while spending million of dollars on Radio and TV Marti to try fruitlessly to deliver the image of the United States to Cubans.”

Revealing previously unknown and surprisingly large figures, the USINT statement said 16,767 Cubans received visitors visas in the first six months of 2013, compared to 9,369 in the same period last year — a 79 percent spike — and that another 29,000 received migrant visas in 2012. Under a 1994 bilateral accord, Washington promised to issue at least 20,000 migrant documents to Cubans per year.

The spikes were the result of stepped-up visa interviews by US consular officials in Havana, from 150 to 600 per day, to clear out a large and years-old backlog of applications. But Havana also greatly eased its restrictions on Cubans’ travel abroad as of Jan. 14.

As for Garcia’s complaint that the 600 Cubans a day who apply for U.S. visas must each pay a $160 fee to USINT — $600,000 per week by his estimate — the USINT statement said the fee was the same at all U.S. embassies around the world. Cuba has one of the most expensive passports in the world, costing $140 for six years.

Replying to the column’s complaint that USINT rejects most of the applicants for visitor’s visas, the statement said: “To qualify for a tourist visa, applicants must demonstrate strong ties to Cuba that will compel them to return after a short visit to the United States. That is very difficult for many Cuban applicants.”

Cuba analysts speculated that the Garcia column was Havana’s opening shot for the first U.S.-Cuba migration talks, scheduled for July 17, since their suspension more than two years ago because of the detention in Cuba of U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross.

But they were baffled by Garcia’s apparent claim that the government allows people to leave illegally by boat. Havana in fact interdicts illegal departures, although there have been reports of officials taking bribes to turn a blind eye to them.

Garcia wrote that some of the Cubans who had been turned for U.S. tourist visas “were mentioning that they would not return again to apply for a visa, that with some friends they would prepare an illegal trip by sea.”

That trip, he added, “would be to try to reach U.S. territory, as some have done, above all with the assurance that the Cuban authorities are not intervening in these intents, and when at the most they provide advice on how to avoid risking the lives of those on the trip.”

Garcia, who has written several essays on Cuba-U.S. relations, could not be reached to explain his comment. But Havana residents said there seemed to be little awareness of his odd assertion on the streets of the Cuban capital Friday.

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