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New U.S. visa policy for Cubans draws widespread criticism

Miami Herald Visa Article ImageBY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES

MARCH 20, 2019 04:18 PM,

UPDATED MARCH 20, 2019 05:10 PM

The U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, on Nov. 14, 2018. MATIAS J. OCNER MOCNER@MIAMIHERALD.COM

The new U.S. policy that limits visas for Cubans will hurt families and damage the emerging private sector there, several experts, activists and Cubans on the island told the Miami Herald.

The State Department announced last week that it was eliminating the five-year, multiple-entry visa for Cubans and replacing it with a three-month visa good for only one visit. Mara Tekach, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, said the change was the result of a “reciprocity alignment.” The measure adds to the obstacles to travel to the United States. Consular services at the U.S. Embassy were closed in 2017, forcing Cubans applying for U.S. visas to travel to third countries — and pay the increased costs involved.

“As a member of a family marked by emigration, I am gravely worried by this situation,” said Camilo Condis, a Cuban entrepreneur who has relatives in the United States. “To put at risk the capacity of Cuban families to maintain close, personal relations just because of political interests shows that, aside from the speeches and justifications, they are not thinking about the Cuban people when these devastating decisions are taken.”

The Trump administration “claims to support the Cuban people with its policy and its actions; it’s hard to see how reducing visa validity meets that standard,” said Emily Mendrala, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. “On the contrary, today’s action will increase family separation and decrease support for the Cuban people.”

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A State Department official wrote in an email that the change was the result of a worldwide review of the principle of reciprocity in issuing non-immigrant visas, required by an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in March 2017. “During the review, the Department noted discrepancies between Cuba’s visa regime and that of the United States. Given that Cuba was unable to change its visa regime, the United States is required by law to reduce validity to match Cuba’s practices,” the official wrote. “We consider all relevant factors, including validity and number of entries, when determining whether visa regimes are reciprocal.”

Cuba issues U.S. visitors visas good for two months that can be bought online or at the airport. Although the Cuban visas are indeed shorter, they are much easier to obtain. Cuban government figures show that more than 600,000 U.S. travelers visited the island in 2018, mostly aboard cruise ships. In contrast, the State Department issued only 4,918 non-immigration visas to Cubans during fiscal year 2018 to visit family, do some tourism or business or receive medical treatment.

The State Department could not come up with examples of similar changes made in visas regimes for other countries based on the reciprocity requirement.

“It is not true that this decision was made on the basis of reciprocity, because Cuba offers U.S. citizens all the facilities so that they can, from anywhere in the world, obtain a visa, issued on the spot, to travel to Cuba.” the Cuban foreign ministry declared.

“The official reason for this rule change is unconvincing at best,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group. “It ignores the fact that American citizens can easily obtain a Cuban tourist visa at a U.S. airport just before boarding a plane. This is a far cry from the obstacles faced by Cuban citizens, who are now required to travel to U.S. embassies in third countries, and pass an interview with a consular officer, before obtaining the equivalent visa. There is nothing reciprocal about making it vastly more difficult for a Cuban citizen to visit the U.S. than it is for an American citizen to visit Cuba.”

Other than officials at the State Department, no one in the Trump administration has defended the visa change or explained how it fits into its Cuba policies. The office of Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the architects of the policies, learned about the change from media reports Friday and has asked the State Department for more information, sources told the Miami Herald. Rubio could not be reached Wednesday because he was traveling to Haiti.

The White House did not reply to requests for comment.

The five-year visa was established by the Obama administration to promote contacts between the two peoples. Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with Havana in 2015. The Trump administration has reversed several of its predecessor’s Cuba decisions but kept others, especially those related to travel to Cuba and activities “in support of the Cuban people.” Trump signed a presidential memorandum in June 2017 in Miami declaring that U.S. policies will encourage “the growth of a Cuban private sector independent of government control” and increase “support for the Cuban people through … lawful travel.”

Experts and activists have questioned the visa change, which they believe will affect exactly those people the Trump administration says it wants to help.

“Cuba’s private sector has faced great obstacles since the halt to visa processing in Havana. Many who travel to a third country to apply for U.S. visa renewals depend on the five-year multiple entry visa option in order to sustain their businesses,” said Mendrala.

Miguel Ángel Morales, owner of the La Moneda Cubana restaurant in Old Havana, said he made more than 20 trips to the United States in the past five years to buy supplies. “All the basic items in a restaurant, the dishes, the cups, the maintenance supplies, everything is bought abroad because those products do not exist in Cuba,” Morales said in a telephone interview.

Morales said he’s sometimes had to make the trip just to buy spices. But shopping in Walmart or Home Depot is not the only benefit of U.S. visits by these entrepreneurs. The possibility of contacting “people with similar businesses, to learn best practices and learn how a market works … that’s a transformative experience for them,” said Guennady Rodríguez, a former legal adviser to Cuba Emprende, a Catholic Church initiative to train private business owners.

Morales said he renewed his five-year visa before it was eliminated, but other self-employed workers or business owners who were not as lucky will have to travel to other countries, such as Panama or Mexico, to buy supplies or pay higher prices to other Cubans who can travel abroad with fewer limitations, such as those who also hold Spanish passports.

John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said an administration official suggested that the decision to limit the visas may also force the Cuban government to open wholesale markets on the island. The lack of such markets is what’s forcing business owners to travel abroad to buy supplies.

“If John’s source is accurate, then the rationale behind the decision has nothing to do with the fig leaf of reciprocity and everything to do with a Bolton-Pompeo-Rubio reversion to the pressure cooker tactics embodied in the embargo,” said Ted Henken, author of several books about Cuba and a professor at Baruch College. “However, this rationale has many problems. There’s Panama and other sources where they can go instead. The tactic essentially seeks to use the embattled emergent private sector as pawns in a political game and there’s going to be huge collateral damage on Cuban families, civil society activists who seek to travel, as well as the people to people civil society contact that had been increasing during the last decade.”

Kavulich also noted that the visa change may also be related to the situation in Venezuela.

The Trump administration has repeatedly singled out the Cuban government as one of the factors blocking a solution to the political crisis in the South American country. It is considering further sanctions on the island, including returning it to the list of countries that sponsor international terrorism. The administration last month also allowed lawsuits in U.S. courts to seek compensation for Cuban government confiscations of properties against several Cuban military-owned companies.

The Cuban government has given no hint that it will change its stance on Venezuela. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez posted a tweet Tuesday declaring, “I energetically reject and denounce the McCarthyism of President Trump USA and his imperialist reiteration of the Monroe Doctrine. Cuba will continue to be free, socialist and in solidarity with Venezuela in the face of the threat signaled by ‘all the options on the table,’ as he repeated.”

Meanwhile, the discomfort among Cubans on the island and in Florida is growing. Hundreds of Cubans posted comments on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Havana expressing their frustrations with the visa changes and the paralysis of the family reunification program since late 2017.

“Cubans don’t need to be taught or convinced by the U.S. that it is the Cuban government and its repressive, order and control policies, who is primarily responsible for their struggles,” Henken said. “However, the [visa] policy will likely provoke anger and confusion and exasperation in Cubans who had come to expect greater support and opportunity from U.S. policy.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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