A Conversation with the Consul General of the United States in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Timothy P Roche, U.S. Consul General in Cuba

Timothy P Roche, U.S. Consul General in Cuba

The old United States embassy in Havana, today the headquarters of the United States Interest Section (USIS, also known as SINA for its Spanish acronym), is a seven-story building with a surfeit of glass windows located a stone’s throw from the Malecon. Built in 1953 and designed by the architect Wallace K. Harrison, it is similar in style to New York City highrises.http://desdelahabanaivan.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=2592&action=edit

In spite of not having had diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1960, the United States has the second largest diplomatic headquarters on the island, surpassed only by the monumental edifice of the Russian delegation.

The U.S. Consul General in Cuba, Timothy P. Roche, has served since August 2012. This reporter’s primary reason for requesting an interview with him was to solicit his views on granting visas applications for family reunification and tourism.

Before arriving at the consul general’s rather sober office, one must go through the usual searches and electronic checkpoints typical of embassies almost anywhere in the world. In hostile countries, U.S. embassies are targets of attack by Islamic terrorists, but not in Cuba.

There are other risks. Without high fences, heavy doors with electronic locks, patrols by Cuban security agents and a squad of stern Marines, thousands of people eager to emigrate to the United States — pursuant to the current Cuban Adjustment Act — might be tempted to break into the building.

Lynn Roche, a public affairs officer and wife of the consul general graciously guided this reporter to Mr. Roche’s office, which was flanked by map of the island and the Stars and Stripes.

Since 1994, following the emigration agreements signed by Cuba and the United States during the Clinton administration, at least 20,000 Cubans each year have left the country permanently in a legal, orderly and safe manner to be reunited with their families.

The impact has been dramatic. In the last two decades, nearly 450,000 Cubans have left their homeland, including a high percentage of educated young people. “In fiscal 2013, we issued over 24,000 visas for permanent emigrants to the United States,” says Roche.

The length of time to process a visa varies. Oscar Rojas, for example, spent five years trying to get to Florida to reunite with his mother. Others, like Susana Mateo, were luckier. After just a year and a half she received a visa to settle with relatives in Hialeah.

The consul general acknowledges that granting a permanent visa request takes time. “There is a very high demand from applicants and we have a limited number of U.S. consular officials in Havana who can interview them. It is true that the interview process takes more time for some types of visas, but we are working to reduce the wait time.”

He adds, “It depends on the category but in some cases involving permanent relocation, such as for a bride or groom, the waiting period is four or five months. For spouses, minors and parents of U.S. citizens, there is no waiting period at all. Once your casework is complete in the United States, you receive the next available appointment. Before the Cuban Family Reunification Program it could take up to eleven years for an adult. Now it takes just over three. And in the case of tourist visas, we managed to substantially reduce the wait. It used to take almost 5 years. We are now granting permission within six months and we are working to further reduce this time.”

With regards to the new multiple entry visas, valid for five years, which they begin to offer as of 1 August 2013, the official clarifies, “This visa is not to stay and live in the United States for five years. Nor is it to work or study in the United States. And it’s given at the discretion of the consular official.”

Cubans older than 45 who have traveled to the United States up to four times and recently had their visas denied, qualify as “inconsistent with the policies of the United States Interest Section” when asking for a tourist visa.

With regards to this, the diplomat said, “Every case is different. It’s difficult to explain a case without knowing the specific characteristics of each one. Now, for us it’s better to offer a multiple-entry visa to cases made up of people who travel and return to Cuba, because it’s a better service for the client and more efficient for us.”

Mr. Roche didn’t have at hand the number of multiple-entry visas awarded from 1 August 2013 to date. In any event, on the issue of tourist visas — which are also good for cultural and academic exchanges — the number is huge: from 8,745 to more than 33,000 in 2013.

For Cubans who complete the procedures to travel to the United States, the high prices in hard currency charged by the Cuban government for routine procedures or simple medical check ups are a problem. This is the case with Roiniel Vega, who started the procedures to travel to Miami to visit his son seven months ago, and doesn’t understand why USIS doesn’t have printed forms with the procedures for asking for a non-immigrant visa.

“To the more than 500 convertible pesos (CUC) you have to pay to the government for a passport, medical check up, and other paperwork for those who want to travel to the United States, you have to add 20 CUC to pay for filling out the forms electronically in areas around the Interests Section. I wonder why USIS doesn’t have printed forms, to lower the costs of the paperwork,” says Roiniel.

The U.S. Counsul says that, “There are three steps to asking for a tourist visa. And the first step is filling in form DS-160 on our web page. We know that the majority of Cubans don’t have access to the Internet, but we’ve seen that many people arrange to get access to the web in various ways. We don’t have the capacity and resources to do it any other way.”

Iván García

8 February 2014