Despite suspended service, the U.S. embassy in Havana is giving visitor visas to these Cubans

TNS/McClatchy/TNS/Sipa USA

The U.S. embassy in Havana has been quietly issuing visitor visas to private entrepreneurs and activists even though they do not qualify for emergency nonimmigrant visas, the only category regular Cuban citizens living on the island are allowed to obtain in the Cuban capital, according to the embassy’s own policy.

The embassy says on its website that it is currently only issuing official visas to diplomats and members of the Cuban government and those with “an emergency medical condition requiring medical treatment in the United States.”

But the Miami Herald has spoken to and learned about several Cubans who have applied and were granted visas in Havana who do not have a medical emergency, including Cuban private entrepreneurs who have come to the U.S. seeking business opportunities. Among those granted a U.S. visa is Carlos Miguel Pérez, the only member of the Cuban National Assembly who owns a small private company.

In the first six months of the year, the embassy issued 251 visas known as B1 to Cubans who intended to do business in the United States, including participating in educational events, and 189 B1/B2 visas to those coming to the United States for a combination of business and tourism, according to the most recent State Department visa statistics. During the same period, it granted 76 B2 visas, which are intended for people requiring medical treatment in the U.S., among other purposes like tourism or visiting family members.

Most Cubans, including seniors and minors wanting to visit their relatives in the United States, must still travel to a third country and apply at a U.S. consulate there. The process requires securing a visa to that country first and paying for flights and accommodation. Getting a visa appointment in nearby destinations like Mexico or the Dominican Republic can take several months.

Asked to clarify its visa policy at the embassy in Havana, a State Department spokesperson said the embassy “does not currently process non-emergency nonimmigrant visas” but added that it provides “limited nonimmigrant visa services including for official and diplomatic travelers.”

“Visa records are confidential under U.S. law,” the spokesperson said. “Therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases.”

The problems for Cubans wanting to get a visa to visit the United States started with cutbacks of embassy staff in September 2017 because of the unexplained health incidents experienced by U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers in Havana. Later, in March 2019, the Trump administration announced it was shortening the period Cuban visitors could stay in the United States and stopped issuing B-2 five-year visas with multiple entries. At the time, a State Department spokesperson said the decision, which drew widespread criticism, was motivated by a review of the “principle of reciprocity” with Cuba regarding visas.

The State Department spokesperson told the Herald the agency started reissuing five-year B2 visas last week, but not in Havana. In a tweet on Wednesday in Spanish, the U.S. embassy confirmed it is not giving appointments to Cubans wanting to travel to the United States to visit their relatives.

The extension of the validity of the B2 visas, which previously was just three months with a single entry, “will bring immediate, tangible benefits to Cubans visiting family, purchasing goods, and engaging in tourism in the United States by reducing the frequency with which Cuban nationals need to make costly trips abroad to renew their U.S. visas,” the State Department spokesperson said.

The official said the measure also seeks to reduce the workload at other consulates since Cubans would need to apply only once to be able to enter the United States several times with this visa.

Amid one of the largest migration waves from Cuba in several decades, the Biden administration resumed complete immigration visa services in Havana in January. It recently reopened the office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services at the embassy.

It is unclear what is stopping the administration from resuming all visa services in Havana. In an interview with the Herald in January, Benjamin Ziff, the head of mission at the U.S. embassy in Cuba, said damage to its seafront building and the challenges to repair it had affected the ability to fully staff the embassy. At the time, he said the embassy had around 35 staffers— down from about 50 in 2017—including five consular officers. The Department of Homeland Security recently cited staffing issues as one of the causes of a backlog of family reunification cases in Cuba.

Commenting on the five-year visa announcement, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, Carlos Fernández de Cossío, said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that his government has been advocating for the full resumption of visa services in the U.S. embassy in Havana, a step that would “have a positive impact” on migration and family contacts.

“The existence of a U.S. embassy in Cuba with consular and immigration services would suggest that applications are preferably processed in Havana,” Cossío wrote. “We are willing to contribute to that end.”

But without providing further details, the State Department official hinted that the lack of a timeline to offer regular visa services in Havana was somehow related to the support provided by Cuba.

“The United States is committed to increasing consular services at Embassy Havana when local conditions and host country support permit,” the official said.