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.
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.