Cuba: Eases Travel to the United States / Ivan Garcia

parquecito-la-habana-cubaTwo days before multiple entry visas good for five years, for Cubans with relatives in the United States, I walked around the outside of the U.S. Interest Section in Cuba (USIS), a few feet from the Havana Malecon.

In the small triangular park located in front of the Rivero Funeral Home, at Calzada and K, where hundreds of people with appointments gather from Monday to Friday, the news spread like wildfire, despite not yet been released by the official media. People had heard through Radio Martí or emails and calls from family and friends across the pond.

As of August 1, Washington decided to extend from six months to five years the period of non-immigrant visas granted to residents on the island to visit the country as tourists. Until now, they had to apply for a permit for each trip and the process could take up to two years.

“With this visa, Cubans who qualify to be granted one would not have to renew and pay $165 each year, as was previously the case for a visa to the United States,” an official located in Florida who requested anonymity said by telephone.

With the new visa, Cubans could travel from the U.S. to a third country. The measure does not include business travel, cultural exchanges or other from Cuba to the United States.

For years, the little park at Calzada and K, has become a gauge of the opinions of many Cubans about the push and pull between the governments of Cuba and the United States.

Not only because every day there are hundreds, and because they come from all provinces. The number of those waiting to be approved for emigration to the United States, under the heading of family reunification, in force since 1994, is significant.

The place also is filled with citizens seeking temporary visas, with the intention of visiting relatives or wanting to settle in the northern nation as political refugees.

The daily grind has transformed the blocks surrounding the Interests Section into an emerging local industry for many residents, who have opened fast food cafes. Eating a lunch of rice and pork I met Eugenio, 43, and asked his opinion on the new measure.

“For two months I have been arranging to visit my daughter and my mother, who have lived in Hialeah for 15 years. It’s the first time I’ve tried. They say that for those who want to visit for three months and are under 45,  the Consulate automatically denies the visa. Apparently, it is for fear they will seek asylum on American soil. Young people are often not granted a visa. In the morning my mother called from Miami, she had read the story in the Journal de Las Americas. I’ll wait a few days and see if I can opt for a multiple entry visa.”

Among those waiting to be interviewed, are also those who say that the USIS officials are too demanding when granting visas to Cubans who are going to visit.

Jorge, 38, has another argument. “It’s because of the Cuban Adjustment Act. I’m crazy for them to repeal it. For three years I have been trying to visit my family in Tampa and have been rejected twice for potentially being a migrant, although I am married and I have two children. But when they look at my age, they are deaf to my reasoning.”

According to Jorge, among USIS officials there is an unwritten rule: to catalog all those who are younger than 50 as prospective emigrants. “I just want to see my family and return. I understand them, but repealing the Adjustment Act would make it easier. I hope this new measure makes the requirements easier for people who request temporary visas regardless of age.”

But also in line are citizens who travel unhindered repeatedly to see their children and grandchildren in Miami. “I guess it’s because of my age. I am 74 and the first time I traveled I had turned 50. The Americans know that I live in one of the best buildings in Havana and it would be crazy not to return,” he smiles.

Coinciding with this relaxation of U.S. immigration authorities, the National Bureau of Statistics and Information has reported that 46,662 people have permanently left the island (in the last year), the highest number since 1994, when due to the so-called “boat people crisis,” 47,000 Cubans took to the sea.

Meanwhile, according to data provided by the USIS, in the first half of 2013 they granted 16,767 temporary visas, versus 9,369 granted in 2012. The 79% increase is directly related to the entry into force on 14 January, a new Cuban migration law.

Although you have to give it time to see the results, respondents applaud the new measure. “Anything that is done to lower costs and facilitate family reunion is positive,” says Clara, a woman in her 60s queuing for free internet browsing on one of the two rooms fitted by the USIS that accommodates anyone requesting access.

In the August 2 online edition of the newspaper Granma, in an article titled New Tools, two specialists appeared, giving their points of view. “It’s a pragmatic decision that lightens the work of the Consular Office of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana”, said the researcher and former diplomat Carlos Alzugaray. For political analyst Ramon Sanchez-Parodi, “It does not change one iota the hostile policy toward Cuba, which remains the same. This measure does not cover ’people-to-people exchanges’ at all, nor does it address prohibitions on Americans traveling to Cuba. However, it can’t be described as a measure openly hostile; it’s convenient, practically and politically for the U.S. government.”

In the squabble that the olive-green autocracy has maintained for five years with eleven leaders in the White House, common sense has been a rare bird. And the openings and relaxations of both sides have been scrutinized with suspicion. Now, it couldn’t be any different.

In the scuffle that for five decades has remained olive-green autocracy with eleven leaders of the
Ivan Garcia

Photo: Miguel Iturria Savon. The little park Calzada and K and in the background the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba. Taken from Cubanet

Iván García

5 August 2013