Consular services available to Cubans have changed significantly since the most recent unilateral measures were adopted by the U.S. government.
The Colombian consulate in Havana is receiving an unusually high number of visitors, but is taking steps to maintain order and facilitate the process of obtaining a visa.
Around midyear 2016, Regla got the first call. "Your case is in process and you will be given an appointment soon," the metallic voice said curtly. She had waited so long that, when she hung up, she was convinced that the "machine" on the telephone was, in fact, some joking friend.
The second call came from the United States. Her daughter confirmed that she had received the family reunification paperwork and that her mother's interview was scheduled for October 11, 2017. They had been apart five years; Regla had not met her first grandchild.
Regla, however, would never pass through the black wrought iron fence, encrusted with salt, that guards the U.S. embassy on Havana's waterfront Malecón.
In September, Hurricane Irma sent the sea up to Línea Street and the entire first floor of the building was flooded. The Consul announced the cancellation of all appointments.
But the real storm, that would hit Regla and thousands of Cuban families, was brewing in Washington.
In August, the State Department requested the departure of two Cuban diplomats as a reprisal for incidents allegedly suffered by its personnel in Havana. This was the beginning of a saga that has all the trappings of a science fiction movie.
The Associated Press began to talk about "sonic attacks" on U.S. officials, while at the same time, experts in the field questioned the idea that sound could cause the variety of symptoms described, that defied the laws of physics and logic. The hypothesis could not stand up, but it continued, and continues, to make headlines.
Cuba reacted immediately, denying any involvement, and demonstrated its disposition to collaborate in the investigation.
Despite the complexity of the case and the lack of evidence on the origin or possible motivation for the alleged incidents, the administration of President Donald Trump forged ahead with a series of unilateral measures that paralyzed the functioning of its diplomatic headquarters in Havana.
The majority of the staff was ordered home, with the exception of those in charge of essential functions, and the emission of visas was stopped. At the same time, 15 Cuban officials in Washington were expelled from the U.S. affecting the work of Cuba's diplomatic headquarters there.
The diplomatic situation reached a point almost equivalent to that reigning prior to 1977, before the two countries' Interests Sections were established.
Everyone who had an appointment scheduled was left in limbo. "Why is this happening to me," Regla asked herself everyday, on the edge of despair.
If it were not for the tricolor flag in the front garden, it would be hard to identify the Colombian embassy in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. At least, that is how it used to be.
After the provision of most consular services was cancelled, the U.S. announced that immigration visas for Cubans would be processed via its embassy in Colombia, one of the country's largest in Latin America. Non-immigrant visas, for tourist trips or academic exchanges, could be requested at any U.S. consulate in the world. The embassy in Mexico, meanwhile, would take charge of other services by mail.
Migratory agreements signed by the two countries establish that the United States will grant no less than 20,000 visas annually to Cubans wishing to live in that country. Over the last few years, the U.S. has complied with this stipulation.
The majority of these visas are granted on the premise of family reunification. Obtaining one has always involved a long, complicated process. But now, those interested are obliged to request an interview from the U.S. - which can take years - and then seek a visa to travel to Colombia, make the trip, and pay for several days lodging, to arrive on time for the scheduled appointment. All this with no guarantee that the visa will be granted.
One of the security guards at the Colombian embassy recalled, "The first day, there were 500, and the next 400. Not so many now, like at the beginning."
A Tuesday in mid-January dawned with rain and the arrival of a cold front. Less than 40 people gathered in an orderly fashion, outside the Colombian embassy, to wait for their turn to enter the mansion-consulate and one of the three offices established there to apply for a visa.
"Before, there weren't even appointments," an official from the Andean country told Granma, "Now we have established a system to give priority to those who have interviews scheduled on the closest dates."
The day before, the consulate staff finished work at 11:00pm, after processing the last request. The daily average of those seen is 200 persons, when before the change in U.S. policy, it barely reached 30 or 40. Bogotá has been informed that reinforcements are needed.
But the principal problem at this time is the lack of direction and information. Many who arrive don't have an appointment scheduled and come to the embassy to find out about the new procedure.
Colombian staff members have been inundated with questions that have nothing to do with their roles. The number of calls and emails received by the embassy is huge, making it impossible to answer everyone.
"Our job is to grant visas to Colombia," an official explained. The process to be conducted in Bogotá is strictly a U.S. matter, and depends on the conditions established in the U.S. embassy there.
The same applies for those who must have a U.S. required medical exam. Previously these could be done in Cuba, but now must be conducted by establishments in the Colombian capital designated by the United States.
As for their responsibility, Colombian diplomats in Cuba are simply obliged to comply with standard procedures for the granting of visas.
Visas are awarded for a maximum stay of one month and cannot be extended. Applicants must follow a review procedure at the cost of 40 euros, to ensure that all paperwork is in order, and charges for the consular process amount to 131 euros, for a total of 171.
The approval average is "pretty high," at least when the applicant meets all requirements, sources at the consulate told Granma.
Colombian diplomats are aware of the human side of the situation in which they have found themselves involved: mothers waiting to see their children, siblings separated for years...
"I couldn't ask for more. They have made a tremendous effort," Regla said outside the consulate, waiting to pick up her visa that had been approved, adding, "My interview in Bogotá is on January 19, I'm traveling tomorrow."
Her daughter is waiting for her in Bogotá.
"Thank you, Colombia," she said, opening her arms, getting more than a few laughs from among those in line. By 11:00am, the sky had cleared after the rain, and she had already told her story five times to help newcomers arriving at the consulate.
"This is four times as expensive now," someone else says. Others comment on precautions Cubans with high blood pressure must take in Bogotá, located 2,600 meters above sea level. They ask about security in Colombia and the price of hotel rooms.
No one seems to understand the purpose of obstructing this process - one that is about families not politics. "But this is the way it is," said someone at the end of the line, who quickly quieted down because the staff was calling names again.
REQUIREMENTS FOR A COLOMBIAN VISA
According to information provided to Granma by the Colombian Consulate in Cuba, basic requirements to apply for a visa to visit the country are as follows:
APPOINTMENT CONFIRMATION LETTER:
- Normally to apply for a visa to Colombia, Cubans need a letter of invitation from a citizen of that country. (Since 2013, this has not been a requirement of Cuban authorities.) In the case of persons traveling for an interview at the U.S. consulate, a letter from the U.S. government confirming the appointment is accepted.
- To obtain a visa to Colombia, applicants must show that they have the resources to finance the trip. The Colombian embassy in Havana requires that the person, or someone supporting them, have a bank account with a minimum of 2,000 dollars in the United States, Cuba, or Colombia. The amount was calculated taking into consideration the cost of a flight, hotel stay, food, and fees for consular services.
A VALID PASSPORT & RESERVATONS
Colombian consular authorities also expect the applicant to have a valid passport, hotel reservations, and at least a one-way airline ticket to Colombia.
With information of Author: Iramsy Peraza Forte/ Sergio Alejandro Gómez/ Granma|