The United States consulate, which has been closed since 2017 after alleged “sonic attacks” on diplomatic personnel, will resume a limited service issuing visas, the embassy in Havana said Thursday.
Washington reduced the US mission to the bare minimum five years ago when then-President Donald Trump accused Havana of carrying out “sonic attacks” targeting embassy personnel.
American personnel and their families suffered from mysterious illnesses later known as “Havana Syndrome.” Similar incidents later occurred at other embassies around the world.
A 2020 US government report said the diseases were most likely caused by “targeted, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy”.
The consulate “will begin the limited resumption of some immigrant visa services, as part of a gradual expansion of embassy functions,” said Timothy Zuniga-Brown, charge d’affaires with the US diplomatic mission in Havana.
The closure of the consulate was a major blow to Cubans seeking to immigrate to the US as it forced them to tackle numerous obstacles, including being forced to travel to Colombia or Guyana to apply.
“There are a lot of people who want to leave who take a boat to go there (to the US) or through a third country,” said Cuban retiree Felipe Mesa, 75.
Zuniga-Brown said the consulate will only schedule appointments with people who have already submitted full document files. During the transition period, most applications will still have to be made in the Guyanese capital Georgetown.
The consular service will also provide essential services to US citizens and emergency visas for non-immigrants, he added.
– No warming of relations –
Under existing immigration agreements, the US should grant 20,000 immigrant visas a year to Cubans.
With Cuba experiencing its worst economic crisis in 30 years due to the coronavirus pandemic, most Cubans hoping to immigrate to the US have chosen to do so via the dangerous Central American route where migrants are exploited by people smugglers.
“The migrant visa services are a safe and legal way to achieve family reunification,” Zuniga-Brown said, referring to families divided between the two countries.
Political scientist Rafael Hernandez says the US’s failure to honor the migration agreement has led to “a kind of quiet Mariel”, referring to the mass exodus of about 125,000 Cubans to the US in 1980.
He said the number of undocumented Cubans in the US rose from 21,000 in 2019 to 40,000 a year later.
The reduction in US diplomatic staff in Cuba reflected heightened tensions between the two countries after Trump succeeded Barack Obama at the White House.
Trump ended the improving relationship that Obama approved in 2015 to restore bilateral diplomatic relations.
Many Cubans hoped that the election of Joe Biden — Obama’s former vice president — would improve things, but in vain.
This move “in no way represents a continuity of Obama policy,” Hernandez said, but rather a “rollback on the atrocities committed by Trump.”
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, agreed.
“It would be a mistake to interpret it as the beginning of a major opening to the island,” he said.
With the US midterm elections in November, “it’s hard to imagine there would be any other changes” to Washington’s current policy toward Cuba, Shifter said.
The United States has regularly criticized Cuba’s communist party leaders for the arrest and conviction of anti-government protesters who took to the streets last July in unprecedented demonstrations.
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