Does the US Interests Section in Havana Scam Cuban Visa Applicants?

By Christopher P. Baker

Photo: Christopher P. Baker

HAVANA TIMES — Like many Cubans, Luis Enrique González was ecstatic when in January 2013 his government lifted the much-hated restrictions on freedom to travel abroad. He dreamed of visiting his father in Florida—maybe even riding a Harley-Davidson around the USA.

“My dad left my mum while she was still pregnant,” Luis told me. “I’ve only met him once, when he showed up on my doorstep unannounced two years ago here in Havana,” added the 42-year-old, whose dad will pay for Luis to visit the USA.

Luis’ eyes lit up as we talked about the new law that would permit almost any Cuban to get a passport and travel at will without having to seek government permission or pay for a exit visa—the detested “white paper” that cost about $300 in a country where the average wage is less than $20 a month.

“I want to ride around the States with my dad. He’s a Harley fanatic, too,” added Luis, who owns twelve pre-revolutionary Harleys, is president of Cuba’s harlistas, and my co-guide on licensed motorcycle tours of Cuba that I lead.

Alas, Uncle Sam recently denied Luis a visa.

“They told me I didn’t have enough family ties in Cuba,” said Luis. ”Coño! I have two children plus a wife and mother to support. Don’t they count?” Not to mention his precious Harleys.

The U.S. official who interviewed Luis at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana asked him whether he intended to remain in the USA. “I told them I love Cuba and want to remain in my country,” he replied.

Perhaps had he said he wanted to leave Cuba forever he would have been issued a visa. The interview was over in less than two minutes. Luis was charged $160 for the privilege of being denied.

The U.S. has long criticized Cuba’s Communist government for controlling who could leave, charging it with creating “an island prison.” The new migratory law undermines the human rights charge and makes the U.S. look hypocritical. Cubans can now travel freely (even to the USA) just like a U.S. citizen… Unless, of course, you’re a U.S. citizen wishing to visit Cuba. Uncle Sam strictly controls who can go there, and visiting Cuba without a U.S.-issued license can cost U.S. citizens a hefty fine.

The U.S. Interests Section (USINT), which welcomed the end to Cuba’s travel restrictions, appears to have been hoisted by its own petard.

Following Cuba’s liberalization, the former embassy—a stark concrete-and-glass tower on Calzada and Calle L—was soon flooded by applications for tourist visas to visit family and friends in la Yuma (the States). Cubans cheered when in October 2013 the Interest Section more than doubled its capacity for processing nonimmigrant visa applications and changed U.S. visa policy to grant five-year visas permitting multiple to-and-fro travel. No longer would Cubans have to repeatedly apply and pay a $160 fee for a six-month visa, good for a single entry only.

However, many Cuban visa applicants say the picture isn’t quite so rosy.

“It’s a scam,” claims my friend Jorge Coyula Cocina, whose wife Rosita was recently denied a visa for a second time. “The new five-year visas and so-called surge of visas are just tricks to excite Cubans to apply to visit the USA so they can steal the interview fee by denying a visa. When they denied Rosita her visa they handed her a paper saying she can apply again by paying another $160. They claim that the $160 is to pay the costs of the interview, yet there really is no interview.

“It saddens me to see how Cubans are accustomed to being humiliated again and again,” Jorge snorts. “I’d heard the stories but didn’t believe it. Rosita and I now see that the visa process is just a million dollar business for America.”

Jorge isn’t alone in his claim. The vast majority of visa applicants are denied. And the cost—a fortune to the average Cuban—and disdainful treatment are leaving a bitter taste.

“I was reduced to tears,” says Alicia Alonso Rodríguez—recently denied a visa to visit a close friend in Texas who wrote a letter of support stating her willingness to bear all the costs. “I cried not because I was denied, but because I was treated so rudely during my interview.”

Alicia is a tour guide whom I work with as a National Geographic Expeditions “people-to-people” tour leader in Cuba. I know for a fact that she’s one of the highest income-earners in Cuba. She has a five-year-old son whom she adores. And her parents and grandmother live with Alicia and rely on her income. Yet the U.S. official who interviewed Alicia told her sneeringly that she didn’t earn enough money and, amazingly, like Luis, that she didn’t have sufficient family ties to Cuba.

“The U.S. Interests Section staff mistreats and humiliates us as if we’re inferior people. If you’re going to deny a visa, at least have the courtesy to tell the truth. But don’t lie! It’s demeaning,” says Alicia. “I was naive and trusted the instructions on the [U.S. Interests Section] website,” she adds, contemptuously. “It says that visa applicants can show documents to argue their case during the interview. But my interviewing officer didn’t allow it. She didn’t want to see my letters of support. She just asked me a couple of questions and then denied the visa. The official didn’t give me a chance to explain anything. She barely looked at my face. The interview lasted less than two minutes.”

Is this how we’re supposed to be winning over Cubans hearts and minds?

Rosita and Jorge traveled to Havana from the colonial city of Trinidad—a day’s journey—full of high hopes. Like Alicia and Luis, Rosita was dismissed from her “interview” in less than two minutes. The slight left the couple disgusted.

“That was a bitter experience for us and has made us change our view of the American government,” says Jorge. “Of course we still love the American people, but the American government doesn’t care about the Cuban people. Rosita got about two minutes time with la vieja [old woman]. She has a reputation of being terrible. Everyone in the queue was afraid of being assigned to her. She didn’t even permit Rosita to show her your letter of support.

“Worse, the Interest Section takes away what little money we have,” adds Jorge.

He opens one palm and begins calculating, using his fingers like an abacus.

“Rosita was number 400, and behind her were about another 500 people. So I think they’re taking at least 900 people daily,” says Jorge. His fingers fly as he calculates the math. “That’s about $144,000!”

USINT says it can now handle 500 people daily, up from about 150 per day a year ago. The wait for an interview had been significantly reduced. And USINT issued 33,254 visitor visas to Cubans in 2013, up from 15,983 the prior year, while numbers for 2014 are up 27 percent for the first half of 2014, claims USINT.

Cuban journalist Nestor Garcia Iturbide even claimed (in the June 28, 2013, issue of the Communist Party daily, Granma) that U.S. consular officials were taking bribes to issue visas while denying visas to inspire disillusioned and desperate Cubans to head for the U.S. by raft. (The USA’s so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy ensures that Cubans who reach U.S. soil cannot be sent back to Cuba.) Iturbide never substantiated the claim.

Conspiracy theories aside, only a fraction of applicants are successful. It seems that who gets a visa and who doesn’t is run like a lottery or a throw of the dice.

Meanwhile, most Cubans can only dream about travel. It’s far too expensive. And so, it seems, is the $160 fee every time a Cuban applies for a visa. That’s six months wage for the average Cuban!

No wonder so many Cubans feel that the US Interests Section is playing politics and doesn’t truly have their interests at heart.

27 thoughts on “Does the US Interests Section in Havana Scam Cuban Visa Applicants?

  • Rumors are that they are selling the visas, I say this with current experience that they are denying applicants at the point of so called reconsideration. Using the infornmation of the family member providing for the applicant there Afidafet, and citizenship and funding it for any individual that buys there visa for $10,000. I also have witnesses that have gone through the same thing also some who have been invited to buy them. Currently I’ve been calling the embassy to clear out some left over paperwork before the deadline on the 29th. And they have recognize my number they answer and hang up quickly, They are illegally going to try to use my cousins information to bring anyone they choose to the U.S which that could be placed in his records which will deny him the chance to bring his ill parents from cuba.

  • A sovereign US retains the right to control it’s borders. Your niece is disappointed but the blame lies with those Cubans who received visas to visit and never returned to Cuba.

  • That is why we put invutation all expenses paid by the sponsor while in the usa and not a charge to the goverment and that is why we have to send the affidavit of support

  • I sent my niece a letter of invitation last year ,she had the interview on 12/15/14, all information was in order and notorized ,paid the 160 .00 for the minute and half interview, and all the Puerto Rican employee asked was is that your aunt, aunt? She responded yes (he did not even look at her face) she has no intention to stay since she has a 24 month old baby, and is the director of an important division in habana, and they denied the request with no good reason.

  • I am agree
    with Mr Baker. I suffer the visa denied.

    I not blame
    USA government. I have many good Americans friends because I use to work with them. Actually
    several of them invite me to their houses with the promises to show me their
    wonderful country. I just want to have the opportunity to travel as a tourist.
    I belong to the new entrepreneur class in Cuba who has business and earn enough
    money to travel, enjoy USA (Disney
    perhaps too) and come back because I must to attend my business here.

    I am totally
    agree that USINAT choose who can travel to USA and agree also to pay the fee of
    $160 for the interview. But I would like USINAT honor their information in the
    web site:

    1-The web
    site says the $160 is the fee for the interview however there isn’t interview
    at all. The consul spend just less than 2 minutes and barely see the face of
    the applicant, just keep seen the computer screen.

    2-The web
    site explain the applicant can show to the consul any document which could
    support his specific case but the consul don’t accept any document.

    There is the theory about the DS 160
    form show especial profile of the
    applicant and the consul is special trained to discover who no want to come
    back, believe me, this information is not enough for far to give the idea who
    is who, especially if the applicant can’t explain his specific case.

    I celebrate the fact that the USINAT want to
    reduce the time to get the appointment. They are now processing more applicants
    every day but they are falling in the
    risk to give bad service in the interview.

    USA shouldn’t ignore the new class of entrepreneur
    people in Cuba, we haven’t yet the full potential to do business but we are the seed of the Cuba of tomorrow.
    Every people like this who go to USA and come back, are bringing in his heart
    (..and in his suitcase too …) a piece of capitalism. They no want to stay in
    USA, they want to bring positive things from USA to Cuba. People like this keep
    running small and medium business in Miami because they spend a lot of money
    buying equipment for their business in Cuba and present for their families. In
    Miami there are shops which sell parts of Russian car, who buy it ?, the
    americans !!!????

  • Cute joke, but Fidel’s eneglish is not that good!

  • That is correct Maureen. I went through all the hoops. Letter of invitation, Statutory Declaration describing everything and my commitment to meet all medical expenses, sworn and signed in front of a Notary. Marriage certificate, proof of my Canadian citizenship, completion by my wife of the forms including the one listing her family, original documentation of her ownership of our home, downloading 35 pages of instruction, the list goes on and on.
    We Canadians like to bask in the aura of being the world’s good guys. Time to dissuade yourself. The Canadian officials in the Havana Embassy are anti-social and un-cooperative. Yet we the taxpayers are paying them. The British Embassy staff were a direct contrast. Polite, helpful and interview.
    I regret to say that you are going to have to start by going on the web-site of the Embassy where you will get full details.
    Your friend will not have a problem getting a Cuban passport – thats the easy bit!

  • I didn’t realize it was that difficult for Cubans to get a visa to visit Canada. I had incorrectly assumed that all they needed was a passport and return ticket like we do when we visit Cuba. So even if I offered to bring a friend to Canada & pay all expenses, there’s no guarantee their visa would be approved?

  • So, you enter the U.S and are faced with racism, armed gangsters, drug lords,
    so many hand gun toting red knecks,every type of criminal that lack of control will allow and you lose your self worth and purpose. Whats the point?
    You can dress up a pig but its hard to hide the curly tail, its puishment enough to let
    the unpatriotic individuals go to that waste land.

  • As I wrote earlier, Canada too has visa difficulties and the reasons for its reluctance to issue visas is in large part a consequence of experience. We applied five times over four years for a Temporary Residents Visa for my wife to visit Canada each application being refused, prior to applying for one to visit the UK, which was granted on the first application. The following year the Canadian Embassy had little alternative and issued one.
    The history of Cuban sports teams part of which I related abov, contributes to the built up distrust in embassy staff. Then there are the jinteras (both male and female) who hook up with Canadians, get married, enter Canada and within weeks abandon their supposed partner in life.

  • I had not previously understood that the Havana Times site was primarliy for use by US citizens. You refelect the true arrogance associated by many world wide of Americans. I know many Americans who are hospitable, very well educated and reasonable in their behaviour towards others. They too as Americans suffer the consequences of attitudes of people like you and they too deplore it.
    As for my Spanish, although I strive for improvement, it suffices as the only language I speak when in Cuba and is the language in which my wife and I converse.
    The reason that I always use the word “Socialismo” when discussing the politics of the Castro family regime, is that it is the word they themselves use and plaster on the hoardings across Cuba. I am certain that your colleague John Goodrich would be the first to agree that “Socialismo” is not “true’ socialism and that all followers of Noam Chomsky would support him in his view.

  • Anything is possible…..once the Castros leave town.

  • As a lesson from the Second World War by now 28 states are members of the European Union. In spite of right-wing and some pseudo-left-wing attacks against the EU freedom of movement is its highest and most honourable achievement well worth defending. A citizen of one EU country is even eligible to work in the civil service of another. Through Schengen even some non-EU countries like Iceland participate. I believe the USA and Canada have a similar arrangement. In contrast, both ALBA and Mercosur are a pathetic shadow of this remarkable achievement. It would be a noble aim to work for a situation where unlimited freedom of movement between the USA and Cuba and many others will one day be a reality just as it is in Europe.

  • Better? I ‘spose it doesn’t. However, it does negate the charge that the US is “leading Cubans on”. There are simply more Cubans who want to leave, even temporarily, that Castro hell, than there are legitimate visas available. The real subtext to most complaints is the belief that the US should let every Cuban who applies for a visa to receive one. But if we did that, who would we be….Ecuador?

  • Thanks Moses. I still fail to see how that makes it any better.

  • Moses is right, there is not criteria, but there is not criteria at all. The visa process is complete random like a lottery, just go to the park where the Cubans start the hard way to go to the USINAT for the appointment and listen the Cubans, cubans are open and like to share their own histories, then when they are back with the answer about the visa not matter if it was denied or approved you can see in both cases the same combinations old, young, rich, poor, with family here or there, etc

  • On excellent authority, I can tell you that there is no specific criteria for visa approval. By design, screeners are trained to review each application on its merits. No screener wants their signature affixed to visa application that turns out to be a bad seed. Of course, as common sense would dictate, if you are young, single without property or family attachments, you are least likely to get a visa. But even those applicants have been approved. Hubert, the real criticism should be that because there is no specific criteria, rejections seem capricious. One Cuban gets approved and yet another with a seemingly better profile gets rejected. This is where the criticism should lie.

  • Aye laddie boy, just because it doesn’t make sense to you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense to others. Consular officer, US Interests Section, Development Alternatives Incorporated. If you are limited to a few words of Spanish like your omnipresent Socialismo, I can see how you may be linguistically challenged. Likewise, you shouldn’t confuse fairness with resentment.

  • Moses, this is not sour grapes. I think you are in denial that people have been led on. I agree with CarlosM2000. The lack of publicly announced criteria for the visa issue is a failure of the duty of care towards applicants. I believe you care about Cuban people. But not everyone does. That said I find it also a bit ridiculous that the website of the author Mr Baker claims ‘He is the world’s foremost authority on Cuba travel and culture.’

  • COOL DOWN Dan, take your time and then what you write may make sense. That burning resentment about those who have been more successful in life than you, oozes through reflecting that inferiority complex.
    CONOFF USINT DAI is I expect Latin AIN’TIT SO? James Barry would have been intrigued by learning of ‘The Land Above All Others”. His imagination only stretched as far as the Never Never Land.

  • How ironic. Marco Rubio , Ros Lehtinin urge, digo, demand people not travel to Cuba b/c their money only serves to “prop up the “dictatorship” ( read purchase food, medicne, machinery, building materials, ect.) As usual, the capitalists are more efficient at extracting wealth. The unwelcome visitors never even have to set foot in the Land Above All Others. We just get them to stand for 60 seconds before the taquilla and bear the scorn of some millennial CONOFF who quickly shears them of their $160.00. I wonder if if that money then goes to Radio or TV Marti, which blares incessantly for big screen TVs before which Cubans are forced to sit inside the USINT ? Maybe it’s earmarked for DAI or some such other friendly attempt at overthrowing the evil dictatorship.
    Anyway, those vagos and jineteros one would meet on the Malecon whose biggest complaint was the “Fidel wouldn”t let them travel” must be happy now..

  • It has the advantage Moses of being the truth.
    Ron’s surname is Hayter and he was for many years an Alderman in Edmonton. An interesting character, his father ran a trap line about 180 km. west of Edmonton on the edge of Jasper National Park. My medical brother practiced out there and used to collect the father’s mail from the town post office and put it in the bole of a tree, collecting any mail from old Mr. Hayter. When quite a few years ago, the father died, Ron Hayter wrote a letter thanking my brother for caring for his father over the years. The stimulating point about that was that my brother had served as a Cabinet Minister in Alberta as a Conservative, whereas Ron is a Democratic Socialist. Such is a free democratic society in which people are civil with each other accepting majority rule rather than suffering the indignity inherent in dictatorships like Cuba.

  • If you can’t comfortably afford the visa fee how can you afford to visit the US as a tourist???

  • USINT fees in Cuba are in line with the fees we charge around the world and also in large measure lower than fees charged by many European countries. Visa approval is on a case by case basis. There are certain applicant profiles more likely to be denied but as there no guaranteed approvals, there are not guaranteed denials either. The US remains the world’s most requested visa. It should come as a no surprise that we would have to say no to more applicants that we can say yes to. Cubans, in particular, have a higher probability to use a temporary visa as a means to achieve permanent immigrant status. As a result, temporary visa applicants from Cuba are more likely to be considered “possible immigrants”. The US, more than any country in the world has welcomed immigrants to come to the US to escape the tyranny of their governments and to begin life anew in a free country. We were founded on this principal. Cubans, in particular, have enjoyed a favored status with regards to US immigration for generations. How does a Cuban, who is told “no” by his own government more often than he is told “yes” during his lifetime, have the gumption to criticize any other county, let alone the US, for telling him no. This post is simply sour grapes.

  • Great story!!!

  • The Canadian Embassy in Mirimar accepts applications through the gate prior vto 10.00 a.m. along with the fee. Applicants have to return at 4.00 p.m. to get the answer – usually NO. Reasons are given on a proforma upon which staff place ticks. There is no interview, so the US is comparatively generous!
    Canada’s problem is that Cuban’s receiving a Temporary Resident’s Visa (visitor) frequently when arriving in Canada seek political refugee status. Secondly there is a long history of Cuban sports tems members defecting. I have a casual aquaintance with the fellow who runs International baseball tournaments in Edmonton. In 2006 he ran a male tournament and Cuba entered. One day after they arrived, two members of the team defected. the next day two more defected. Ron was in his office the following morning when his landline telephone rang. Upon lifting it the caller announced in good English. “This is Fidel Castro – and it was! Then President Castro proceeded to berate Ron in excellent English. When eventually Castro paused to take a breath, Ron explained to him that he held no responsibility for the Canadian Government’s decisions regarding the four (different from THE FIVE) and then said: “But Mr. President, it was Cuba that selected the members of your team.”
    President Fidel Castro Ruz slammed down the telephone!
    In 2011, Ron ran an International women’s tournament. Cuba entered. The day following their arrival one member of the team defected and the next day two more. But Ron waited in vain for President Raul Castro Ruz to call, he was far too cagey.

  • It is clear that the USINT accepts only a small percentage of people that apply. Therefore they must have very strict guidelines on who to accept and who to deny. What is unethical is that they don’t disclose what criteria they are looking for. For example: if they know they won’t give visitor visas to unemployed men of working age, then they should state that somewhere or at least say your chances a very low. I see no reason why they couldn’t make a list of criteria that they want to see and say if you don’t meet these criteria your chances are very low of being accepted.

    This is clearly a huge money making operation and it’s terrible that they let people pay such a high price when they know before even talking to them that they don’t meet their “secret” standards. At the very least, people that are not accepted should pay a much lower fee for two minutes of interview time.

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