United States reopens visa and consular services at Cuban Embassy

HAVANA — The United States Embassy in Cuba is reopening its visa and consular services on Wednesday, the first time it has done so since a series of unexplained health incidents among diplomatic personnel in 2017 reduced attendance American in Havana.

The embassy confirmed this week that it will begin processing immigrant visas, with priority given to permits to reunite Cubans with their families in the United States, and others such as the diversity visa lottery.

The recovery comes amid the biggest migration flight from Cuba in decades, which has pressured the Biden administration to open more legal avenues for Cubans and begin a dialogue with the Cuban government, despite a historically strained relationship.

They are expected to issue at least 20,000 visas a year, although this is only a drop in the bucket of the migration tide, which is fueled by intensifying economic and political crises. on the island.

In late December, US authorities reported arresting Cubans 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 nationality after Mexicans appearing at the border, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

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

While the vast majority of Cuban migrants make their way to the United States via flights to Nicaragua and cross overland at the US border with Mexico, thousands more have also embarked on the dangerous journey by sea. They travel 90 miles to the Florida coast, often arriving in rickety, precariously built boats full of migrants.

The exodus from Cuba is also compounded by increased migration to the United States from other countries like Haiti and Venezuela, forcing the US government to deal with an increasingly complex situation at its border. south.

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

“Engagement in these talks underscores our commitment to continuing constructive discussions with the government of Cuba, as appropriate, to advance American interests,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement in November following of the visit of an American delegation to Cuba.

Small steps are a far cry from relations under President Barack Obama, who eased many Cold War-era US sanctions during his tenure and made 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 sound attacks that remain largely unexplained.

Read more: American diplomats in Cuba were injured by a “sonic weapon”. What is that?

As a result, many Cubans who wanted to legally immigrate to the United States had to fly to places like Guyana before migrating or reuniting with their families.

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

Under President Joe Biden, the United States eased some restrictions on things like remittances and family travel from Miami to Cuba, but many in Cuba did not hope that a Biden presidency would bring the island back. to his “Obama era”.

Restrictions on tourist travel to Cuba, as well as imports and exports of many goods, remain in place.

The Cuban government’s harsh treatment of participants in the 2021 protests on the island, including heavy prison sentences for minors, has also stoked tensions, a constant point of criticism from the Biden administration.

Cuban officials have repeatedly expressed optimism about talks with the United States and steps to reopen visa services. Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Cossio said in November that ensuring migration through safe and legal channels is a “mutual goal” of the two countries.

But Cossio also blamed the flight of tens of thousands of people from the island to US sanctions, saying “there is no doubt that a policy aimed at lowering the standard of living of a population is a direct driver migration”.

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