The U.S. State Department officially reopened its Cuba consulate this week, providing full visa and consular services for Cubans seeking to immigrate to the United States for the first time since September 2017, when the Embassy staff was dramatically reduced following unexplained health incidents experienced by diplomatic and intelligence officials in Havana. An Embassy statement said the goal was to “ensure safe, legal, and orderly migration of Cubans.”
The Biden administration first announced the reactivation of limited visa processing in March of 2022. While the process started again last spring, it was only a partial operation.
There are plans to process 20,000 visas annually for Cubans to immigrate to the United States, prioritizing tens of thousands of pending applications for reunification with family members who already reside in the country, as per the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program of 2007.
As Cubans en masse have joined other Latin American migrants crossing the southern border of the United States, pressure on the Biden administration to normalize immigration procedures has escalated. The island nation has faced widespread shortages of food, medicine, electricity and fuel as it struggles to emerge from a post-pandemic economic crisis. More than 250,000 Cubans have left the island for the United States since October of 2021—most of them flying to Nicaragua or Panama and undertaking a dangerous trek northward through Central America and Mexico to reach the U.S. border. In the fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Coast Guard also reported intercepting 6,182 Cubans at sea. Furthermore, in recent days hundreds of Cubans have landed on Florida’s shores on rickety boats, creating what Florida officials characterize as “a humanitarian crisis.”
The mass exodus is one of the largest in Cuban history and shows no sign of abating. Indeed, Cubans now constitute the second largest immigrant group behind Mexicans seeking refuge in the United States.
To stem the tide of migrants seeking entry at the border, the Biden administration announced on January 5 that border guards will begin turning back Cubans, along with Mexicans, Haitians and other citizens from the region unless they had applied for entry from their countries of origin through a new “online appointment portal” and had a pre-arranged sponsor in the United States. The new policy marks a significant departure from the policy of allowing Cubans to cross the border, petition for asylum and remain in the States for a year until they can request residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which expedites the ability of Cubans to become U.S. citizens.
The reopening of the consulate marks a significant step toward normalizing the Embassy’s diplomatic functions. The consulate was shuttered, and the embassy reduced to a skeletal staff level on September 29, 2017, by then secretary of state Rex Tillerson after mysterious ailments, known as the “Havana Syndrome,” were reported by CIA and embassy personnel. After five years of investigation, officials have identified no evidence of any targeted attacks on U.S. personnel.
Cuban officials have blamed the U.S. embargo and additional economic sanctions imposed during the Trump administration and sustained by President Biden for contributing to the dramatic exodus.
“There’s no doubt that a policy meant to depress the living standards of a population is a direct driver of migration,” Cuban deputy of foreign affairs minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio stated last November.
But Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez welcomed the resumption of visa services on Wednesday as a “necessary and correct step,” urging the Biden administration to also process non-immigrant visas. The restoration of Consulate services “doesn’t yet include non-immigrant visas, which hinders family visits and cultural, sports & scientific exchanges,” he tweeted, which Cuba actively supports.