The United States has fully resumed immigrant visa services at its embassy in Cuba’s capital, five years after Washington closed consular services in Havana amid a wave of unexplained health incidents.

In a statement last week confirmed by the embassy that it would begin processing immigrant visas on Wednesday, including permits for Cubans reuniting with family in the US and others chosen through the diversity visa lottery.

Since 2017, many Cubans have been forced to do so travel to third countries — specifically Guyana in South America — to file U.S. visa applications.

“Everything happened very quickly,” said 18-year-old Melissa Vazquez after submitting her application on Wednesday. She explained that she had waited seven years to be reunited with her father, who lives in the US.

“I must come [back to] get my visa and I can travel,” she said.

The resumed services are in the middle record migration from Cuba to the US, leading to calls for US President Joe Biden’s administration to open more legal avenues for Cubans and engage in dialogue with the Cuban government despite a historically tense relationship.

People line up in front of the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba
People wait in line to enter the US Embassy in Havana, Cuba, January 4, 2023 [Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]

In April last year, representatives of the two countries held the diplomatic talks at the highest level since ties under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, deteriorated in an attempt to address the migration problem.

But with the Caribbean island ravaged by it economic and political crisesCubans are now the second largest nationality after Mexicans to appear at the US border, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.

Earlier this week, authorities in the Florida Keys – a chain of islands off the southern coast of the US – said they were facing a “humanitarian crisis” after about 500 migrants and refugees, most of whom came from Cuba, arrived by boat in the space of days.

The US embassy in Havana said last week that its decision to expand consular and visa services was aimed at “ensuring the safe, legal and orderly migration of Cubans.” Tourist visas will remain off limits for the time being.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez welcomed the resumption of services on Wednesday as a “necessary and correct step” but said the US must move on.

The process “does not yet include visas for non-immigrants, hindering family visits and cultural, sporting and scientific exchanges to which #Cuba is still open,” he tweeted.

US consular and visa services were closed in 2017 after embassy staff reported a series of health incidents. called the Havana syndromewhich U.S. intelligence experts speculate may be linked to sonic strikes.

The closure, in conjunction with that of then-President Trump tightening of US sanctions against Cuba, heightened tensions between the two nations, which during was relaxed Barack Obama’s tenure at the White House.

Under Biden, Washington has some restrictions easedalso on transfers and family travel from Miami to Cuba. But his administration has so far failed to fulfill the hopes of many Cubans that Biden would return the island to the “Obama era.”

Restrictions remain on tourist travel from the US to Cuba, as well as the import and export of many goods. The US has also kept Cuba on its list of countries considered “sponsors of terrorism” and recently added it to another list countries that undermine religious freedom.

The crackdown by the Cuban government anti-government protests in 2021 drew condemnation from Biden and his top officials, prompting new US sanctions and travel bans on Cuban officials.

Jorge Duany, a Cuba specialist at Florida International University, told the AFP news agency that by resuming visa services, Biden is “trying to recalibrate his policy on Cuba, seeking a middle ground between Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ and Obama’s ‘approach’.”

“But for now, changes in U.S. policy toward the island are minimal,” he added.

Meanwhile, Cuban officials have repeatedly expressed optimism about talks with the US and welcomed moves to reopen visa services.

Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio said in November that ensuring migration through safe and legal routes is a “mutual goal” between the two countries.

But Cossio also blamed US sanctions for the flight of tens of thousands of Cubans, saying that “there is no doubt that policies designed to depress a population’s standard of living are a direct driver of migration.”

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