HAVANA, March 4 — The United States consulate, closed since 2017 following alleged “sonic attacks” against diplomatic staff, will resume a limited service issuing visas, its embassy in Havana said Thursday.
Washington reduced the US mission to the bare minimum five years ago when then-president Donald Trump accused Havana of carrying out “sonic attacks” targeting embassy staff.
US personnel and their families suffered from mystery illnesses subsequently known as “Havana Syndrome.” Similar incidences later occurred at other embassies around the world.
A US government report in 2020 said the illnesses were most likely caused by “directed, pulsed radio frequency (RF) energy.”
The consulate “will begin the limited resumption of some immigrant visa services, as part of a gradual expansion of the embassy’s functions,” said Timothy Zuniga-Brown, the charge d’affaires at the US diplomatic mission in Havana.
The consulate closure was a major blow for Cubans wishing to emigrate to the US as it obliged them to tackle numerous obstacles, among them being forced to travel to Colombia or Guyana to submit a request.
“There are a lot of people that want to leave who take a boat to go there (to the US) or through a third country,” said Cuban pensioner Felipe Mesa, 75.
Zuniga-Brown said the consulate will only schedule appointments with people that have already presented complete document files. During the transition period, most requests will still have to be made in Guyana’s capital Georgetown.
The consular service will also provide essential services to US citizens and emergency non-immigrant visas, he added.
No warming of relations
According to existing immigration agreements, the US should authorise 20,000 immigrant visas a year to Cubans.
With Cuba suffering its worst economic crisis in 30 years due to the coronavirus pandemic, most Cubans hoping to emigrate to the US have chosen to do so through the dangerous Central American route where migrants face exploitation by people smugglers.
“The visa services for migrants are a secure and legal way towards family reunification,” said Zuniga-Brown, referring to families split between the two countries.
Political scientist Rafael Hernandez says the US failure to honour the migration agreement led to “a type of silent Mariel,” in reference to the mass exodus of around 125,000 Cubans to the US in 1980.
He said the number of undocumented Cubans in the US rose from 21,000 in 2019 to 40,000 a year later.
The reduction in US diplomatic staff in Cuba reflected increased tensions between the two countries after Trump succeeded Barack Obama in the White House.
Trump put an end to the improving relationship that had seen Obama approve the re-establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations in 2015.
Many Cubans hoped the election Joe Biden — Obama’s former vice-president — would improve things, but in vain.
This move “in no way represents a continuity of the Obama policy,” said Hernandez, but rather a “rolling back of the atrocities committed” by Trump.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, agreed.
“It would be a mistake to interpret it as the beginning of a significant opening towards the island,” he said.
With mid-term US elections due in November, “it is difficult to imagine there would be other changes” in current Washington policy towards Cuba, said Shifter.
The United States has regularly criticised Cuba’s communist party leaders over the arrest and conviction of anti-government protesters who took to the streets in unprecedented demonstrations last July. — AFP