US bolsters Havana embassy staff to process some visas

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A security guard stands outside the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini/File Photo

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HAVANA, March 3 (Reuters) – The U.S. Embassy in Havana said on Thursday it would increase its staff and resume some visa processing in Cuba several years after the Trump administration cut staff at the embassy. establishment following a series of unexplained health incidents.

The top US diplomat in Havana, Timothy Zuniga-Brown, made the announcement at a press conference, confirming a Monday Reuters report. Read more

Following staff cuts in Havana in 2017, the Trump administration required Cubans to apply for visas at the US embassy in Guyana, an expensive trip that few on the island could afford.

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Zuniga-Brown’s announcement highlighted a “limited resumption of some immigrant visa services” in Havana. He added that Cuban immigrant visas will still be processed primarily in Guyana, while offices in Havana will focus on other consular services and “limited emergency processing of non-immigrant visas.”

The possible deployment of additional consular officers to Havana, following President Joe Biden’s ongoing Cuban policy review, will begin to address a more than four-year backlog of immigration visa applications by Cubans with family in the United States.

It also marks a rare step by the Biden administration to ease restrictions on Communist-ruled Cuba imposed by former Republican President Donald Trump, who reversed the historic rapprochement overseen by his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

Just before the announcement, the Cuban government released a statement to Reuters calling the Trump-era policy unwarranted and damaging to U.S.-Cuban relations.

“Over five years, this decision has had very damaging consequences for the entire Cuban population, as well as for the Americans,” said the statement signed by Ines Fors, head of US-Cuban bilateral relations at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs. .

The Cuban statement did not directly address the staffing announcement, and Zuniga-Brown did not provide a timeline or numbers for the staffing increase.

In Havana, some Cubans saw the US Embassy’s announcement as a step in the right direction, while others hoped that visa processing would speed up faster and take place entirely in Cuba.

Maria de Lourdes Galban, a 35-year-old doctor who hopes to reunite her two young children with their father in the United States, said she had hope but was looking for more.

“I expected a wider opening and it hurts me because I know there are thousands of Cubans who are in the same situation and we have been waiting for many years,” she said.

Trump cut embassy staff sharply in 2017 after some embassy staff in Havana fell ill with what became known as “Havana Syndrome”. The unexplained illnesses first affected American employees in the Cuban capital, but then spread to other parts of the world.

The Cuban government has long denied any involvement or knowledge of the incidents.

POLITICAL IMPACTS

In addition to drastically reducing visa processing, Trump has restricted remittances to Cuba, reduced flights to the island and increased hardship for US citizens seeking to travel to Cuba for anything other than family visits.

The U.S. Embassy on Thursday did not address those issues.

Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, promised during the 2020 election campaign against Trump to re-engage with the Cuban government, and many in both countries expected him to roll back restrictions on the Trump era.

The Biden administration instead imposed new sanctions on Cuban officials in response to Havana’s crackdown on protesters following widespread marches on the island in July.

Biden officials are aware that any easing of restrictions on Cuba could lead to political fallout from conservative Cuban Americans, a key voting bloc in South Florida.

But resuming visa processing at the embassy is less likely to elicit a serious political backlash since a number of Cuban-American lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have backed the idea.

Olga Lidia Pérez, a 67-year-old retired doctor in Havana who waited four years to reunite with her daughters in Florida, said she had more questions than answers after the embassy announcement this week.

“I still don’t know if I should believe it or not because between Cuba and the United States, you never know,” she said. “There is always uncertainty.”

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Reporting by Dave Sherwood, additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by David Alire Garcia, Leslie Adler and Bill Berkrot

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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