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?

  • 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!

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