HAVANA, Cuba, (Reuters) – The US embassy in Havana began issuing a trickle of immigrant visas to Cubans this week, making good on an earlier promise to restart visa processing on the island after a four-year hiatus.
The State Department under former US president Donald Trump sharply scaled back embassy staff in 2017 following a spate of “anomalous health incidents” that came to be known as “Havana syndrome.”
Cubans seeking to immigrate were instead directed to apply for visas in person at the US embassies first in Colombia, and later in Guyana, costly trips beyond the reach of many.
On Tuesday, the Havana embassy processed its first visa applications in more than four years, although it said it would limit the newly renewed services to parents of US citizens, a fraction of those seeking visas to move to the United States.
“We are pleased that our limited restart of immigrant visa processing in Havana has begun well,” the US embassy said on social media on Wednesday. “We look forward in the future to processing many more immigrant visas and continuing to expand our consular services in Havana.”
The United States has said it will also ramp up visa processing for Cubans at its embassy in Guyana to reduce a backlog of cases that resulted from staffing shortfalls there during the coronavirus pandemic.
Outside the Havana embassy, Cuban Maria Isabel Fiffer, 23, said she had heard of the reopening and had come to inquire about the status of her mother-in-law’s petition to see her daughter in the United States.
“Bringing together parents and children who are citizens is progress,” she said. “But we need it to be for everyone.”
The reopening of the U.S. embassy comes as tens of thousands of Cubans have left the Caribbean island in recent months for the United States amid an increasingly acute economic crisis that has led to long lines for food, medicine and other basic goods.
Many fly to Nicaragua, which in November lifted visa requirements for Cubans, then make their way north overland to the Mexican border, a costly, and often dangerous journey.
Communist-run Cuba says the United States has stoked the migration and unrest by tightening Cold War-era sanctions to create economic hardship on the island, while falling short on prior commitments to issue 20,000 visas annually to Cuban nationals wishing to immigrate.
The United States has said reopening its embassy and issuing visas from Havana is a step towards ensuring a more safe and orderly migration.