US reopens visa and consular services at embassy in Cuba

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

The Embassy confirmed this week that it will begin processing immigrant visas, with priority placed on permits to reunite Cubans with family in the US, and others such as the diversity visa lottery.

The restart comes amid the largest flight of migrants from Cuba in decades, which has put pressure on the Biden administration to open more legal pathways to Cubans and begin dialogue with the Cuban government, which despite a strained historical relationship.

It is expected that they will issue at least 20,000 visas a year, although it is only a drop in the bucket of the migration tide, which is encouraged by the deepening economic and political crisis of the island.

At the end of December, US authorities reported that they stopped Cubans 34,675 times on the Mexican border in November, up 21% from 28,848 times in October.

Month-to-month, that number has steadily increased. Cubans are now the second largest nationality after Mexicans showing up at the border, US Customs and Border Protection data shows.

The increasing migration is the result of a number of complex factors, including economic, energy and political crises, as well as great discontent among Cubans.

While most Cuban migrants head to the US on flights to Nicaragua and cross overland at the US border with Mexico, thousands of others have taken the perilous voyage by sea They travel 90 miles to the coast of Florida, often arriving in rickety, precariously constructed boats full of migrants.

The exodus from Cuba has also been exacerbated by an increase in migration to the US from other countries such as Haiti and Venezuela, forcing the US government to grapple with an increasingly complex situation. on its southern border.

The upgrade of visa operations 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.

“Engaging in these discussions reaffirms our commitment to continue constructive discussions with the Cuban government where appropriate to advance US interests,” the US Embassy said in a statement in November. after an American delegation visited Cuba.

The small steps are a far cry from relations under President Barack Obama, who eased many Cold War-era sanctions in office and visited the island in a historic 2016.

Visa and consular services were closed on the island in 2017 after embassy staff were harassed in a series of health incidents, alleged sonic attacks that remain largely unexplained.

As a result, many Cubans who wanted to legally immigrate to the US had to fly to places like Guyana to do so before immigrating or reuniting with family.

Although relations between Cuba and the US have always been strained, they have escalated following the closure of the embassy and the Trump administration’s tough sanctions on Cuba.

Under President Joe Biden, the US has eased some restrictions on things like reparations and family travel from Miami to Cuba, but many in Cuba have lost hope that a Biden presidency would return the island to the “Obama era.”

Restrictions on tourist travel to Cuba, and the import and export of many goods, remain in place.

Tensions have also been the Cuban government’s harsh treatment of participants in the island’s protests in 2021, including heavy prison sentences given to minors, a point of constant criticism by the Biden administration. .

Cuban officials have again been optimistic about talks with the US and steps to reopen visa services. Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carlos Cossio, said in November that ensuring migration through safe and legal routes is a “mutual goal” of both countries.

But Cossio also blamed the departure of tens of thousands from the island on US sanctions, saying “there is no doubt that a policy meant to reduce the living standards of a population is a direct driver of migration . “

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