Things That Matter

Visas From Cuba Have Now Been Suspended Indefinitely

Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits were already on edge with last Friday’s announcement by the State Department that it was withdrawing the majority of its embassy staff from Havana and indefinitely suspending visas for Cubans applying to travel to the U.S. 

A corner of Vedado, a neighborhood in Havana. Photo credit: Alex Zaragoza

Then, on Tuesday, the U.S. ordered two-thirds of Cuban embassy staff to leave Washington within a week.

These measures are in response to what the U.S. calls “sonic attacks” suffered by 22 U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana since fall 2016.

A political message located directly across from the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Photo credit: Alex Zaragoza

Although the State Department insists that diplomatic relations will continue with the island, and reportedly doesn’t believe the Cuban government is responsible for the attacks, these measures constitute a major re-escalation of hostility between the two nations.   

The indefinite suspension of visas for Cuban relatives of U.S. residents and citizens is a huge blow for the Cuban-American community, many of whom sponsor visits from their parents, children or siblings.

Then, on Thursday, Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald reported that the U.S. would not reimburse visa application fees—which cost $160 for tourist, business or family visas—despite the fact that it was indefinitely canceling all previously arranged embassy interviews for applicants. According to the story, the State Department has stated that although Cubans are free to apply for U.S. visas at embassies in a third country, the fees already paid cannot be transferred.

Needless to say, the cost of visa applications is already prohibitive for most Cubans, who live on an average of $25 a month. On top of that, traveling to a third country to be able to apply at a different U.S. embassy is almost impossible, as Cubans are required to obtain visas for most countries in the world.  

Cuban-born Carlos Rodríguez, who came to the U.S. in 2008 on a fiancé visa and lives in the Bay Area, helped his elderly parents in Havana apply for a non-immigrant visa to visit him in 2016, but they were denied. Cubans are rarely given an explanation for visa denials.

In fact, the rate of denial for Cubans applying for U.S. visas is the highest of all countries in the world — nearly 82 percent percent of applications were denied in 2016. Rodríguez and his parents were planning to apply again this year, but now that possibility has been shut down.

Athletes and musicians traveling to the U.S. to compete or perform will also be affected, as their visas are also processed through the embassy.

Rodríguez says, “Once again, it’s the [Cuban] people who will suffer, not the government.”

Cuban youth playing dice on the streets of Havana. Photo credit: Alex Zaragoza

The expulsion of Cuban embassy employees from Washington also threatens to severely curb the travel of Cuban-Americans to the island. This is because of a Cuban policy requiring Cuban-born U.S. residents and citizens to travel to the island with a Cuban passport. They must obtain a passport extension every two years, which is one of the main consular services provided by the Cuban embassy in Washington. At full staff, the process can take months. With a reduced staff, there is no telling how long it will take.

A Georgia-based source, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern of repercussions from Cuban government, also expressed distress over the State Department’s recent measures, particularly because the situation had gotten so much better since the Obama administration opened up diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Her Cuban husband now travels to Cuba five or more times a year to visit his mother, and sometimes they both go for a quick weekend trip. She contrasted her husband’s state of mind before and after the reestablishment of relations, noting that when he first got to the U.S. and was in the process of obtaining permanent residency, he was not able to return to Cuba for three years.

“It was awful, literally like torture,” she says. “And now, you know, it’s been so great because that trauma…started to really disappear.”

Many felt a sense of relief when travel to the island became easier and less expensive, especially Cuban-Americans who still have family on the island. It gave them great peace of mind to know that if their mother, father, child or sibling fell ill suddenly, they would be able to drop everything and go to Cuba.

This family in Georgia is one of the many Cuban-American families that have been blindsided by the evacuation of U.S. embassy staff from Havana. The source’s mother-in-law just had her visa accepted two months ago—after three previous denials—and was in the process of gathering documents for her follow-up interview. Now that all interviews and appointments have been indefinitely suspended, it’s very likely she will not be able to come to the U.S. anytime soon.

These stories represent just a few of the many thousands of families that will be adversely affected by the State Department’s drastic measures of the past week. They are a particularly bitter pill to swallow because of the many positive steps that have been taken in the past two years to improve relations. Cuban-Americans are strongly in favor of normalization, but these measures are undeniably a major setback.


READ: U.S. Officials Are Investigating If Russia Is Behind A Bizarre Attack That Left U.S. Diplomats In Cuba With Hearing Loss

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In Cuba, Where Food Is Unreliable, Savvy Cooks Have Turned to Facebook to Share Recipes

Culture

In Cuba, Where Food Is Unreliable, Savvy Cooks Have Turned to Facebook to Share Recipes

Photo via Getty Images

COVID-19 hasn’t been easy for Cubans. Not only have Cubans been physically affected by the virus like the rest of the world, but the drop in the island’s gross domestic product has stymied local economic productivity. The island can no longer look to tourism to add to their GDP.

Because of this drop in GDP, food shortages on the island have become more severe than in recent memory. And Cuban cooks are feeling the effects.

Cubans must stand in line for hours at markets with no guarantees that the ingredients that they want will be available.

This way of living is especially hard for Cuban cooks, like 39-year-old Yuliet Colón. For Colón, cooking is both a creative expression and a stress reliever. “The kitchen is my happy place, where I am calmer and I feel better,” she recently revealed to the Associated Press.

Yuliet Colón is one of the creators of a Facebook page called Recetas del Corazón that has changed the cooking game for thousands of Cubans.

Now, thanks to Colón and other curious and generous Cuban cooks like her, Recipes from the Heart is now 12,000 members strong.

The goal of the page is to help struggling Cuban cooks cope with food shortages. Members of the page share creative recipes, tips, and food substitutions. Launched in June of 2020, the page was an instant success. Its success proves that Cubans have been desperate to find ways to adapt their cooking to the post-COVID-era.

To AP News, Yuliet Colón laments about the lack of rice, beans, cheese, fruit, and, most of all, eggs. “What I like the most is making desserts, but now it’s hard to get eggs, milk or flour,” she revealed.

The brightside is, however, that Cuban cooks are finally able to share food-related tips and tricks with each other on a much larger scale than they were before the internet became more widespread in the country.

Now that many Cubans have access to communication apps like Facebook and WhatsApp, they can now connect with one another and make the most of what they have–however little that may be.

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This Is How Cuba Is Developing Its Own COVID Vaccine When It Can Barely Get Daily Necessities To The Island

Things That Matter

This Is How Cuba Is Developing Its Own COVID Vaccine When It Can Barely Get Daily Necessities To The Island

Cuba has long been a biotech juggernaut in the Caribbean. When health crises emerge around the globe or there’s a medical disaster, Cuba is often one of the first nation’s to send medical staff and emergency workers to help. Its medical team has become part of the country’s diplomacy.

But the Coronavirus pandemic has brought economic devastation to a country already facing severe economic issues. Many on the island struggle to even find daily necessities like Tylenol or Band-Aids yet the Cuban government is just steps away from developing its own vaccine against COVID-19. How is this possible?

Cuban researches are making their own Coronavirus vaccine and seeing great results.

Currently on the island, there are five vaccine candidates in development, with two already in late-stage trials. Cuban officials say they’re developing cheap and easy-to-store serums. They are able to last at room temperature for weeks, and in long-term storage as high as 46.4 degrees, potentially making them a viable option for low-income, tropical countries that have been pushed aside by bigger, wealthier nations in the international race for coronavirus vaccines.

If they’re successful and developing and rolling out the vaccine, Cuba – a country where the average scientific researcher earns about $250 a month — could be among the first nations in the world to reach herd immunity, putting it in a position to lure vaccine tourists and to export surpluses of what officials claim could reach 100 million doses by year’s end.

If they pull this off, it would be a big win for the communist government.

Achieving success would be an against-the-odds feat of medical science and a public relations win for the isolated country of 11 million people. Cuba was just added back to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in the final days of the Trump administration.

It could also make Cuba the pharmacist for nations lumped by Washington into the so-called “Axis of Evil.” Countries like Iran and Venezuela have already inked vaccine deals with Havana. Iran has even agreed to host a Phase 3 trial of one of Cuba’s most promising candidates — Soberana 2 — as part of a technology transfer agreement that could see millions of doses manufactured in Iran.

“We have great confidence in Cuban medical science and biotechnology,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told The Washington Post this week. “It will not only be fundamental for Venezuela, but for the Americas. It will be the true solution for our people.”

So how is Cuba managing to pull this off despite all the challenges they face?

Cuba is an authoritarian, one-party state with strict controls on everything from free speech and political activism to social media and LGBTQ rights. But the island has always invested heavily in education and healthcare, which has led to an unusually sophisticated biotechnology industry for a small developing country, with at least 31 research companies and 62 factories with over 20,000 workers.

Should Cuba’s vaccines succeed, its researchers will have overcome even more hurdles than their peers in Western labs — including shortages of equipment, spare parts and other supplies, due in part to U.S. sanctions

A successful vaccine could also become a vital new source of revenue for Cuba, which has been suffering a brutal economic crisis that has citizens waiting hours in line to buy scarce food, soap and toothpaste. The economy worsened under Trump-era sanctions that tightened the long-standing U.S. economic embargo of Cuba by curbing remittances, scaling back U.S. flights, ending cruise ship passenger traffic and further complicating Cuba’s access to the global financial system. President Biden has called for a possible return to Obama-era policies, but he has made no such moves yet.

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