The United States government has announced that, effective in March, it is making staffing cuts to its embassy in Havana permanent. These cuts are expected to have significant consequences for Cuba’s economy and its citizens, and they send US-Cuba relations to their lowest point since normalization began four years ago.
Staffing levels at the embassy were initially reduced in the wake of the “health attacks” on the embassy which began in 2016. The cause and exact nature of these attacks are still unknown. The U.S. government has not accused the Cuban government of any wrongdoing, but says the Cubans were responsible for the safety of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.
A statement released by the U.S. State Department outlines the staffing changes: “The embassy will continue to operate with the minimum personnel necessary to perform core diplomatic and consular functions, similar to the level of emergency staffing maintained during ordered departure.”
As a result of the reduction in staff, the embassy has stopped processing visa applications to the United States. Since 1994, the U.S. has granted its allotment of 20,000 immigrant visas for Cubans. This year, it is expected to fall far short of this number.
Despite canceling in-process visa applications, applicants are not eligible for a refund of the $160 fee required to apply. Nor can that fee be transferred to an application made in a neighboring country.
For now, Cubans will have to travel to another country and visit the U.S. Embassy there in person to apply for a visa. In Havana, hundreds of people have been waiting in line at the Colombian Embassy in order to obtain visas to that country. Many have had to wait several days to have their visas processed. Once in the Colombian capital, Bogota, they hope to visit the U.S. Embassy there to obtain an immigrant visa.
This process takes extra time and money for people in a country already suffering the effects of Cuba’s economic difficulties. As accountant Ana Maria Velazquez in Havana said, “There should be normal relations between the two countries, but if the U.S. doesn’t want them, at least they should do something that doesn’t hurt people.”
The economic impact of halting visa processing may be profound. Migrants who move to the USA every year send billions of dollars back to their families in Cuba. Not only is this money used for basic survival in Cuba’s weak and heavily controlled economy, but it is also used by the fledgling entrepreneurial sector to establish private businesses.
This is happening at a time when the Trump administration has been tightening trade and travel with Cuba, hindering growth in the private sector for the foreseeable future. It is also a time of political transition in Cuba as a new president will take office in April. Vicki Huddleston, a retired diplomat, is concerned about the long-term effects of the U.S. government’s actions.
“We have lost the strategic opportunity to pull Cuba into our sphere of interest,” she says. “Cuba always needed to have a benefactor … now the next benefactor will likely be Russia or China.”