HAVANA (AP) — The US Embassy in Cuba reopens visa and consular services on Wednesday, for the first time since a spate of unexplained health incidents among diplomatic personnel in 2017 curtailed the US presence in Havana.
The embassy confirmed this week that it will begin processing immigrant visas, with priority given to family reunification permits for Cubans in the US, as well as other types of visa lottery.
The resumption comes amid the largest outflow of migrants from Cuba in decades, which has forced the Biden administration to open more legal avenues for Cubans and open dialogue with the Cuban government, despite historically tense relations.
They are expected to issue at least 20,000 visas a year, although this is just a drop in the ocean of migration that is fueled by the island’s deepening economic and political crises.
At the end of December, US authorities reported that Cubans stopped 34,675 times along the Mexican border in November, up 21% from 28,848 times in October.
From month to month this figure gradually grew. Cubans are now the second largest nationality after Mexicans showing up at the border, US Customs and Border Protection data shows.
The growing migration is driven by a complex set of factors, including economic, energy and political crises, as well as deep discontent among Cubans.
While the vast majority of Cuban migrants make their way to the US on flights to Nicaragua and cross the US-Mexico border by land, thousands of others have also taken the perilous journey by sea. They travel 90 miles to the coast of Florida, often arriving in rickety, precariously built boats full of migrants.
The exodus from Cuba is also exacerbated by growing migration to the US from other countries such as Haiti and Venezuela, forcing the US government to grapple with an increasingly difficult situation on its southern border.
The resumption of visa work at the embassy comes after a series of migration talks and visits by US officials to Havana in recent months and may also be a sign of a slow thaw in relations between the two governments.
“Participating in these talks underscores our commitment to engaging in constructive discussions with the Cuban government where necessary to advance US interests,” the US embassy said in a November statement following a US delegation’s visit to Cuba.
Small steps are a far cry from the relationship under President Barack Obama, who eased many Cold War-era U.S. sanctions during his tenure and made a historic visit to the island in 2016.
Visa and consular services were closed on the island in 2017 after embassy staff were affected by a number of health incidents, alleged sound attacks that remain largely unexplained.
As a result, many Cubans who wanted to legally migrate to the US had to fly to places like Guyana to do so before migrating or reuniting with their families.
While relations between Cuba and the United States have always been tense, they have escalated since the embassy closed and the Trump administration’s tougher sanctions on Cuba.
Under President Joe Biden, the US has eased some restrictions on things like money transfers and family travel from Miami to Cuba, but many in Cuba have fallen short of hopes that a Biden presidency will return the island to the “Obama era.”
Restrictions on tourist travel to Cuba and on the import and export of many goods remain in place.
Tensions are also fueled by the Cuban government’s harsh treatment of protesters on the island in 2021, including harsh prison sentences handed out to minors, a constant subject of criticism from the Biden administration.
Cuban officials have repeatedly expressed optimism about talks with the US and moves to resume visa services. Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, Carlos Cossio, said in November that making migration safe and legal is a “mutual goal” for both countries.
But Cossio also blamed the flight of tens of thousands of people from the island on U.S. sanctions, saying “there is no doubt that policies aimed at lowering the standard of living of the population are a direct driver of migration.”