Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez announced a series of measures Saturday that could ease travel to the island for Cuban Americans.
As of Jan. 1, those born in Cuba but living abroad will no longer need a habilitación (qualification) stamp in their passports before they can travel to the island, Rodríguez said at a meeting of Cuban Americans hosted by the Cuban Embassy on the Howard University campus.
“That’s a big thing, huge. It will eliminate a lot of paperwork,” said Tessie Aral, president of Miami-based ABC Charters, which has long handled travel arrangements to Cuba.
“The Cuban government is giving more privileges to us as Cubans than before,” she said.
There are an estimated 800,000 people with a Cuban passport abroad, who currently need habilitación authorization granted by a consulate to travel to the island, Agence France Presse reported.
In his remarks in Washington, Rodríguez also said that children born abroad of Cuban parents can now apply for Cuban citizenship and that Cubans who have left the island through illegal means — by raft, for example — will be welcomed back for visits. There will still be a restriction for those who entered the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay illegally in a bid to get to the United States.
A fourth change will allow Cuban Americans to enter and leave from Cuba on recreational boats as long as they travel through certain designated marinas such as Marina Hemingway in Havana.
Rodríguez got a standing ovation from the approximately 130 Cuban Americans in the audience.
Cuba is opening as the U.S. is shutting down travel opportunities for Cubans, he said.
The meeting, the fourth since 2012, came at a time when many issues important to Cuban Americans — from travel to mail service — are up in the air.
President Donald Trump has outlined a new Cuba policy that will make it more difficult to travel and do business with Cuba, but new regulations haven’t been issued yet.
A recent draw-down of consular officers at the U.S. Embassy in Havana also will make it harder for Cubans on the island to visit their U.S. relatives.
Last year, 428,000 Cuban Americans visited the island. So far this year there have been more than 320,000 Cuban-American visitors to Cuba, said Rodríguez.
The withdrawal of about 60 percent of U.S. diplomats in Cuba came after the United States said Cuba failed to protect its personnel from mysterious auditory attacks that damaged hearing and impaired their health.
Rodríguez again vehemently denied Saturday that Cuba had anything to do with the “so-called sonic attacks.”
Because of the shortage of consular personnel in Havana to process visas, Cubans seeking immigrant visas must now travel to Bogota, Colombia, for their interviews. Cubans who want to visit the United States must travel to third countries for visa processing.
However, Rodríguez said such trips are prohibitive for many Cubans because of the distance.
He said it was “unacceptable and immoral” that the United States would allow political differences between the two countries” to damage the Cuban people.
The United States also recently expelled at least 15 diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington.
Although Cuba has said it will continue to provide all consular services, the lack of personnel is expected to slow the processing of passports and other documents that Cuban Americans need to travel to the island.
Eliminating the habilitación should help somewhat, assuming it takes effect as announced. Cuban Americans currently must send their Cuban passports to the Cuban Embassy and pay a $25 fee for the habilitacion.
However, Cubans born after 1971 and now living abroad will still need to travel on their Cuban passports and renew them periodically.
For the closing session of the Washington meeting, the Cuban government brought its heavy hitters
In addition to Rodríguez, also in attendance were: Josefina Vidal, the chief Cuban negotiator in rapprochement talks between Cuba and the United States during the Obama era; Ernesto Soberon, the Foreign Ministry’s director of consular affairs and Cuban residents abroad; and Eusebio Leal, the historian of the city of Havana.
To be sure, the gathering didn’t represent the full political spectrum of the Cuban-American community. It was a gathering of friends who could be counted on to condemn the U.S. embargo against the island and favor a policy of engagement with the United States.
But even within the crowd from nearly 20 states there was political diversity. Some were involved in promoting travel to the island or have other business dealings involving the embassy, while others were left-leaning but support reform in Cuba. Still others, such as the Antonio Maceo Brigade are steadfast supporters of the Cuban Revolution.
The Washington meeting was something of a dress rehearsal for next Wednesday’s vote at the U.N. General Assembly on a resolution condemning the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
The theme of this year’s Washington event was “In Defense of National Sovereignty and against the Blockade.”
In what has become a ritual at the United Nations, a resolution condemning the embargo — or “the blockade” as Cuba prefers to call it — has been voted on every year since 1991.
Last year, instead of its traditional no vote, the United States chose to abstain — a sign of warming relations between Cuba and the United States. Staunch U.S. ally Israel, whose vote has mirrored that of the United States, also abstained.
The vote on the resolution urging the United States to repeal embargo law and the Helms-Burton Act as soon as possible was 191 yes with the two abstentions.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has urged Trump to direct the United States to vote no at this year’s U.N. session.
“While I recognize the U.N. General Assembly’s vote would be only symbolic, it would send the wrong message to human rights defenders and pro-democracy dissidents in Cuba [if the United States doesn’t vote no],” he said.
Now with relations between the United States and Cuba threatening to go back into the deep freeze, Cuba has expended a lot of effort both rallying people at home and on social media to support the resolution.
The government’s Twitter campaign uses the hash tags #Unblock Cuba and #NoMas Bloqueo.
In a report prepared in conjunction with the resolution, Cuba says the embargo “continues to cause suffering to the Cuban people and obstructs the economic development of the country.”
Over the six decades the embargo has been in force, the report said, Cuba calculates the damages it has caused to the island at more than $130 billion at current prices.
Cuba held similar sessions earlier this month in Panama for Cuban residents in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Milan for Cubans living in Europe.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi