Traveling to the U.S., home to an estimated two million Cuban Americans, will now be more difficult and expensive for family members living in Cuba.
With the severe reduction in staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cubans who want to apply for non-immigrant visas — to visit relatives or for tourism or business, for example — will now only be able to do so at embassies or consulate offices in third countries. That includes Cubans who already started the process and even paid the required fees.
“The U.S. embassy in Havana will cancel all previously-scheduled nonimmigrant and immigrant visa interview appointments. Cuban applicants for U.S. nonimmigrant visas must apply at a different U.S. embassy or consulate, but they must be physically present in that country,” the Department of State informed in a statement obtained by el Nuevo Herald.
A department spokesperson said the same situation has occurred in countries like Venezuela, Russia and Iran, after embassy closings or staff cutbacks in U.S. embassies there forced local residents to travel to neighboring countries to apply for U.S. visas.
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The U.S. government last week announced it had stopped processing visa applications at its embassy in Havana and was withdrawing non-essential personnel, because of mysterious “attacks” on at least 22 U.S. diplomats and family members that caused a string of health problems.
“Staff remaining in Havana will carry out core diplomatic and consular functions, including providing emergency assistance to U.S. citizens in Cuba. We have suspended most visa processing in Havana,” the statement added.
The State Department did not say whether the embassy will be able to process emergency visas for Cubans.
The U.S. government also will not refund the $160 fee required for applications for tourism, business or family visit visas, and the money cannot be used for applications outside Cuba. But the payment is valid for one year — a small consolation, if the brewing diplomatic spat ends and the embassy resumes processing applications within that period.
Visa applications “are refundable only in narrow circumstances and are not transferrable to another embassy/consulate,” the State Department said. “However, the fee is valid and may be used for a visa application for one year from the date of payment.”
A post on the embassy's Facebook page said the mission is returning “passports, visas and travel packages that have been previously issued.”
Still unclear are several issues, including the future of family reunification and other immigration visas. U.S.-Cuba immigration accords in 1995 require Washington to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans per year. That process was already taking a long time before the current crisis.
“My partner submitted a family reunification request for his son in Havana nearly five years ago, and this year, 2017, we received a document from the National Visa Center dated April 3rd stating that within 90 days we would have a reply on an interview in Havana,” Sabina A. Medina wrote in an email to el Nuevo Herald. “Up until now, they always say it's under consideration.”
The Facebook page of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana has been flooded with hundreds of comments along the same line, reflecting the anguish of Cubans whose visa applications are now in limbo.
“Holy mother!!!!!! What fault do those of us who have relatives waiting for interviews after so many years have?????? My God, this waiting has not been easy. When you talk about immigration visas, that's not a one-day process!!!!! Holy God, don't do this to us!!!!!!” Anisley Menéndez wrote in a post in Spanish.
What fault do those of us who have relatives waiting for interviews after so many years have??????...Holy God, don't do this to us!!!!!!”
Anisley Menendez, on Facebook
Many Cubans also complain that traveling to third countries to apply for U.S. visas will be hard because most countries make it difficult for Cubans to visit.
“This is shameless, because applying for a visa in any other country requires a bank account, properties, and scheduling the interview is very difficult,” said Josefa Molejon. Few countries do not require Cubans to obtain visas. “They are far away countries, with different languages. Imagine my 85 year-old mother, and the costs.”
The halt in processing visa applications adds to recent changes in U.S. immigration policies that restrict the arrival of Cuban migrants. The Obama administration's decision in January to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy meant the end of Cubans being treated as de facto political refugees when they set foot on U.S. territory.
But Cubans also suffered the highest visa rejection rates of any anywhere in the world over the last two years. Eighty-one percent of the applications in 2016 were rejected and 75 percent were denied in 2015.
The State Department explained the denials this way: “We experienced a spike in demand for non-immigrant visas after Cuba lifted its exit permit requirement in 2013, allowing many Cubans to travel abroad for the first time. More recently, the decline in visa issuances to Cubans has coincided with an increase in visa validity for Cuban nationals traveling in B-2 status (multiple entry) from six months to five years.
“Cubans do not need to renew as frequently, leading to a decrease in total issuances. In fact, notwithstanding the current refusal rate, more Cubans now have valid non-immigrant visas for travel to the United States than ever before,” the statement added.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter:@ngameztorres