US to increase embassy staffing in Cuba for restoration of visa processing: report

The Biden administration is expected to announce a plan to restore some staff at the U.S. embassy in Cuba, after nearly five years of running the mission under a skeleton crew.

According to a report by Reuters, the move would restore visa processing that's largely been curtailed since the Trump administration.

Staffing at the embassy was drastically reduced in 2017, after multiple U.S. diplomats reported a series of symptoms that came to be known as the "Havana syndrome," officially known as Anomalous Health Incidents (AHIs).

While the causes of Havana syndrome were subject to broad speculation - from so-called "sonic attacks" to microwave radiation - the health scare prompted the Trump administration to slash staff in Havana, undoing part of his predecessor's policy of rapprochement with the island.

A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified this year found that the "signs and symptoms of AHIs are genuine and compelling," and found electromagnetic energy to be the most plausible of the causes tested.

The report also all but ruled out soundwaves, and biological or chemical agents acting on their own as the likely cause of AHIs.

The Biden administration's decision to reinstate visa processing will likely face less partisan rancor than other overtures toward the island, in part because the closure of visa processing disproportionately affected Cuban dissidents.

The Cuban government has not yet responded to the report.

South Florida GOP Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart, María Elvira Salazar and Carlos Giménez last month called on President Biden to reinstate consular services in Cuba, prioritizing access for pro-democracy and human rights activists.

In a letter to Biden, the Republicans criticized that the current status of consular services has benefitted those close to the regime, at the expense of opposition figures.

"It was particularly insulting to many in our districts when regime operatives, and their favorites such as the professional baseball players, were able to access on-island consular services while the vast majority of more deserving Cubans were forced to travel to a third country at considerable expense," wrote the members.

The push to expand avenues of protection for dissidents gained steam last summer, when economic conditions sparked massive protests on the island.

According to human rights organization Prisoners Defenders, Cuban authorities have jailed more than 1,000 people as political prisoners over the last year.

The Biden administration has ratcheted up sanctions on regime officials over the crackdowns, and is unlikely to ease the longstanding trade embargo.

The move to potentially streamline visa applications could be critically received by some in the GOP, who are both eager to criticize Biden and see any sign of openness toward Cuba as a sign of weakness.

Still, the South Florida Cuban-American Republicans' calls for expanded consular services could soften that blow, particularly amid the ongoing crackdown on dissidents.

While some dissidents are likely to seek U.S. visas for political reasons, the island's economic stagnation has also remained a significant spur for emigration.

During the last half-decade, many Cubans looking to travel legally to the United States have attempted to access consular services in third countries where they can legally travel to, like Guyana on the northern coast of South America.

That travel has helped fuel the irregular flow of Cuban migrants through Central America and Mexico and to the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly when Cubans are not allotted U.S. visas in third countries and decide not to return to their homeland.

The Reuters report did not include details on when U.S. authorities plan to execute the plan, or whether services other than visa applications would be expanded.