Cubans are heartbroken, angry can't seek U.S. visas in Havana

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cubans said they were both heartbroken and enraged by the United States’ decision on Friday to stop processing visas at its embassy in Havana that would further tear at the seams of families already divided by the Florida Straits.

People wait to enter the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The United States said it was cutting its diplomatic presence in Cuba by more than a half because of mysterious “attacks” against its embassy personnel and was therefore halting regular visa operations.

“To think you can’t go see your family is a terrible thing,” said pensioner Xiomara Irene Louzado, 74, who had been planning a visit to the United States to see her sister and nephews.

Louzado said she also wanted to visit the graves of her sister and mother. She has traveled there regularly but now she simply no longer knew when she next could.

“This is unnecessary and inhuman,” said Laura Hernandez, a Cuban student who had been hoping to move to live with her father in the United States. “With so many families to reunify... why?”

While Cuba numbers a population of 11.2 million, there are an estimated 2 million Cuban Americans in the United States.

It remains unclear which visas the U.S. Havana embassy will still be processing and what other recourses Cubans will have.

“We have suspended most visa processing in Havana,” a notice on its website read. “Cuban applicants for non immigrant visas may apply at another U.S. embassy or consulate overseas.”

The United States has one specific deal with its former Cold War foe to issue 20,000 visas a year to Cubans seeking to emigrate there, agreed after the 1994 rafter exodus to prevent them from taking to the sea illegally in makeshift crafts.

Short of an effective third country workaround for those visa applications, Friday’s measure would likely ensure it violates that agreement, said Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University.

The Cuban government has denied any involvement in the alleged attacks on diplomats in Havana and warned the Trump administration against politicizing them.

Twenty-one U.S. embassy employees in Cuba have been injured and reported symptoms such as hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping, the State Department said.

Several Canadian diplomats have complained of similar symptoms to their American counterparts but Canada said on Friday it had no plans to reduce staff at its embassy in Havana.

Many Cubans on Friday said they felt they were once more collateral damage of the war between the anti-Castro lobby in the United States and Cuba.

U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, had in June said he wanted to partially roll back the detente agreed with Cuba under his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama.

“Politics always ends up affecting the poorest, the people, and not the government,” said Jessica Aguila, 38, an office employee who had been planning to visit her family at Christmas.

“In a few months, all the advances between the two countries have been turned to dust.”

Washington on Friday also warned U.S. citizens against visiting the Caribbean island, a move that will likely hurt many Cubans working in hospitality.

That sector is one of the few that had been thriving amidst a gloomy economic outlook, although it took a beating earlier this month from Hurricane Irma that wrought havoc on much of the island’s infrastructure.

“(Trump) is already an imminent danger for us, said Magdalena Hernandez, 67, “worse than a Category 5 hurricane.”

Reporting by Sarah Marsh, Nelson Acosta and Reuters TV in Havana; Editing by Sandra Maler