U.S. promise to issue 20,000 visas to Cubans is jeopardized by cuts at embassy in Havana

People wait to apply for visas outside the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, on Oct. 2, 2017. Thousands of Cubans have had their travel plans thrown into limbo by the U.S. government's announcement that it has suspended visa processing in Havana.
People wait to apply for visas outside the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, on Oct. 2, 2017. Thousands of Cubans have had their travel plans thrown into limbo by the U.S. government's announcement that it has suspended visa processing in Havana. AP

It started with strange symptoms reported by U.S. diplomats in Havana. And now the alleged attacks may continue to affect Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.

As a consequence of the still-unsolved incidents, the U.S. government may fall short of the 20,000 immigrant visas it promised to issue to Cubans every year, a State Department spokesperson has suggested to el Nuevo Herald.

“The United States met its commitment to issue 20,000 travel documents for fiscal year 2017 (and fiscal year 2016). That commitment was met through the issuance of immigrant visas and parole documents,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

“Due to the departure of all non-emergency personnel from U.S. Embassy Havana, we expect to face challenges in meeting that commitment in FY 2018,” which started in October.

Washington withdrew most of its personnel from the embassy in Havana to protect them from the mysterious attacks suffered by 24 diplomats and other U.S. personnel between November 2016 and August 2017. The embassy suspended processing visas, except for medical emergencies and Cuban officials, and halted almost all operations at its immigration visa section.

The Clinton administration promised the 20,000 immigration visas and travel documents per year as part of migration accords with Cuba to halt the 1994 balsero crisis and provide a legal and safe way for Cubans to reach the United States. At the time, thousands took to the seas primarily in rafts and flimsy vessels to reach Florida shores.

The State Department said the 20,000 figure includes: immigrant visas, as well as special admission documents known as “parole” and issued under the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program; refugees and relatives of those who are granted asylum; winners of the visa lottery; Cubans who marry U.S. citizens; and the spouses and children of Cuban doctors who defect while working abroad for Cuban government programs.

The doctors’ program was abolished by the Obama administration in January 2017.

The sharp cut in U.S. Embassy staffing since October has significantly reduced travel by Cubans to the United States and family reunifications. Cubans who want to immigrate to the United States must apply at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, while those who just want to visit, to see family or for any other reason must apply at any U.S. Embassy outside Cuba.

The problem could become permanent if the State Department determines that the risks for U.S. personnel in Cuba, as a result of unresolved health attacks, have not changed.

“The total length of Ordered Departure status may not exceed 180 days, which falls on March 4, 2018. If after 180 days we have determined this threat still exists, we will permanently adjust the staffing posture of our Embassy,” the spokesperson said in her email.

Currently, diplomats in Havana are living on the island without their family, and that could continue for at least another year if the embassy does not resume normal operations after six months. Many Cuban workers from the embassy could also be fired, said retired U.S. diplomat Vicki Huddleston, who headed the U.S Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002.

In addition to the suspension of most consular services and the temporary closure of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, other key sections that deal with human rights issues, organize events or offer internet access to Cuban activists are closed, Huddleston said.

“Nobody is coming to the embassy, and there is a chain around the embassy gate,” she said of her recent visit to the embassy in Havana. “We used to be the biggest diplomatic presence, and now it has gone back to what we had before the Interests Section was opened [in 1977]. … We have completely isolated ourselves,” she added.

Meanwhile, the State Department says the visa processing system in Colombia has been “efficient.”

“The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá is processing the majority of those visas within two weeks,” State Department spokesperson Lydia Barraza told Univision 23. “In reality, it is a pretty efficient process. It is an effective and simple process for those Cubans.”

But the increasing costs and complications of the application process — which requires rescheduling interviews, obtaining visas for third countries and paying to stay there for at least two weeks — have sparked much anguish among Cubans on the island and abroad.

The changes also have hampered so-called cultural exchanges and the participation by Cubans in U.S. events.

The official La Jiribilla magazine reported this week that numerous university programs and concerts by U.S. musicians had to be canceled because of the tighter regulations on “people to people” travel. Most of the Cuban counterparts receiving notice of cancellations are government-controlled institutions.

Although the program was not formally suspended, the State Department in October canceled all interviews for people applying for the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program and has yet to announce new arrangements. The program allows Cubans who have been approved for immigration visas to come to the United States before all their paperwork is completed.

“I paid $1,600 for four paroles for my family, and they have been waiting to schedule the interview for one year. The I-131 application has a deadline. Will we lose that money? No one answers,” Richard Pérez wrote on the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page.

In addition, Cubans on the island who want to apply for political asylum also have been affected by an executive order signed by President Donald Trump to suspend the U.S. refugee program for four months. The administration also capped at 1,500 the total number of refugees to be approved during the 2018 fiscal year from Latin America and the Caribbean, including Cuba.

Cuba’s foreign Ministry has accused the Trump administration of using the alleged attacks on U.S. Embassy personnel to hamper bilateral relations. During a bilateral meeting in December, the Cuban government noted the “negative impact” of the changes in the visa process because “it significantly limits family relations and all kinds of exchanges between the two peoples.”

The Cuban officials at the meeting also “urged” the U.S. government to “issue no less than 20,000 travel documents per year to Cuban citizens who are emigrating there.” In the past, Cuba has accused Washington of failing to meet the 20,000 goal. The Obama administration issued more visas than the minimum established in the accords.

The State Department spokesperson said the United States “remains committed to supporting safe, orderly and legal migration.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres