By Wilfredo Cancio Isla (Cafe Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — In 2016, the US cut down the number of visas given to Cuban citizens to visit family members, participate in cultural exchanges and professional trips to 12,218, the most drastic cut in the last eight years in relation to Cuban applicants.
According to statistics handed over to Telemundo 51 by the US Department of State, the number of visitor visas (B-1 and B-2) given to Cuban nationals fell by almost half in the last fiscal year to those given in 2015, when 22,797 visas were issued.
And the declining trend could continue under Donald Trump’s administration, given the planned controls in the verification process of visa applicants and questions about the White House and its future policy towards Cuba.
“The cutbacks in the number of visitors was a calculated strategy to try and regulate the arrival of Cubans who come to stay and take advantage of social benefits,” said academic Andy Gomez, an analyst of Cuban affairs and a retired professor from Miami University.
Gomez believes that visas for cultural and professional exchanges will gradually be reduced under Trump’s rule.
“I believe that this is a process that is already underway and we will see it develop as part of the US’ foreign policy towards Cuba,” the academic pointed out.
The US Department of State hasn’t disclosed the number of visas granted during 2017 thus far and it didn’t respond to Telemundo 51’s questions about recent complaints with relation to visa applications which were refused to a group of Cuban researchers, academics and writers from the island who needed to travel to Miami to take part last week in the XI Conference in Cuban and Cuban-American studies at Florida International University (FIU).
Out of the 34 participants registered to take part in the FIU event, 15 couldn’t travel, mostly because they were unable to get visas. A panel dedicated to the legendary comedian Guillermo Alvarez Guedes (1927-2013) was cancelled because three of its members, who didn’t receive a visa from the US Embassy in Havana, were absent.
“We are concerned about these visa refusals and we hope that this doesn’t affect our collaborative projects with Cuba which we have been able to develop, particularly in the last two years,” said Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute (CRI) at FIU.
With Cuba’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the restoration of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington in 2015, projects and trips, which had been frozen at FIU because of Florida state regulations, were made viable and, at the same time, the process of getting a visitor visa was made a lot simpler.
The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act, passed in 2002, made the US Department of State carry out a stricter control of visa applications coming from countries listed as “terrorist”, which made this a lengthy process for Cuban visa applications for family and professional trips.
For Cuban immigrants
The total number of visitor visas granted last year was broken down to 2,424 B-1 visas (professional and business), 7,583 B-2 visas (family, tourism and events) and 2,211 dual visas (B-1/B-2). 2014 was the year when the greatest number of these visas were granted over any fiscal period, when 41,001 were given.
Furthermore, the US Department of State told Telemundo 51 that it gave 9,131 immigrant visas to Cuban citizens in 2016, 4,411 to close family relatives “under request”, 4,176 to family relatives with a sponsor and 536 to winners of the visa lottery. A US Department of State official noted that these visas were independent to the 20,000 annual visas the US grants Cuban nationals, which was introduced after the 1994-1995 migration agreements and the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, established in 2007.
The boom in visitor visas to Cuban nationals coincided with Raul Castro’s goverment’s migration reform, which was put into action in January 2013. Cuban applications to travel to the United States multiplied when the requirement to get authorization to leave Cuba was repealed and at times when Barack Obama’s administration opened up the floodgates so as to encourage academic and cultural exchanges as well as professional, sports and religious contacts.
Since 2013, Cubans can remain outside of Cuba for up to 24 months without losing their rights as citizens, which has allowed many visitors to gain legal status in the United States under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) while keeping their property and residency on the island.
There aren’t any statistics for visitors with B-1 and B-2 visas who have decided not to return to Cuba and apply for permanent residency, but the Cuban government has revealed that out of those who visited the United States for personal reasons between January 14th 2014 and December 31st 2016, only 5.7% of them decided to declare themselves as “emigres”.
Clearly, Raul Castro’s migration reform provoked an unsustainable situation with relation to Cuban immigration to the United States. There was an unprecedented increase of 138,356 irregular immigrants across border crossings in four years; doors were opened to many thousands of Cubans naturalized as Spanish or with other European passports with waiver visas, and state expenditure in social benefits for food and healthcare for all new-arrivals who receive parole, went through the roof.
The Obama administration’s decision to end the “wet foot/dry foot” policy and the policy which used to grant special benefits to Cuban asylum-seekers has taken a radical turn since January 12th this year as has the immigration situation between both countries.
“Cutting down on visitor visas, which began in 2014, fits in with Washington’s new policy,” Gomez said.
NON-IMMIGRANT VISAS FOR VISITING FAMILY RELATIVES, CULTURAL EXCHANGES AND BUSINESS TRIPS (2006-2016)
2006 – 7,330
2007 – 10,614
2008 – 11,060
2009 – 17,690
2010 – 20,768
2011 – 16,654
2012 – 20,200
2013 – 36,787
2014 – 41,001
2015 – 22,797
2016 – 12,218
Source: Department of State