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Reduced U.S. Embassy Staff In Havana Hinders Travel By Cubans

Apr 21, 2018
Originally published on April 21, 2018 6:00 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cuba may have a new president whose name is not Castro, but chilly relations between the United States and the communist government on that island aren't expected to thaw any time soon. President Trump has rolled back parts of what he called the Obama administration's one-sided deal with Cuba. And then the U.S. Embassy is nearly empty, following unexplained health problems affecting American personnel there. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Havana.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: There's a small park sandwiched between the U.S. Embassy here in the city's best-known funeral home. For years, the spot served as a shady respite for hopeful Cubans waiting for U.S. visa appointments. Locals wryly referred to it as the park between life and death.

JON CHABIANO: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Jon Chabiano sits on a bench, waiting for a funeral to begin. He says this place used to always be packed.

CHABIANO: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: But no more, he says. Last fall, at least two dozen U.S. personnel and their family members fell ill from what has been described as strange sounds in their Cuban residences and at a city hotel. The yet-to-be-explained sonic attacks left many of the diplomats with hearing loss, headaches and other symptoms. Cuba has denied responsibility for the incidents. Following the attacks, President Trump drastically reduced staff at the embassy, leaving the corridors and offices of the seven-story building practically empty. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, the U.S. charge d'affaires here, says the embassy is very much open.

PHILIP GOLDBERG: We do have fewer people than the building was built to hold.

KAHN: But exactly how many workers that means are left Goldberg won't say. A state department phone directory lists only 12 employees. Goldberg insists consular and emergency services for Americans traveling and living in Cuba continue, and he isn't letting up on President Trump's political goals here, either.

GOLDBERG: More efforts in the areas of democracy and human rights and people-to-people relationships. And so we're doing all of those things. So I reject the idea that it's a ghost town. It's actually quite an active place but with fewer people.

KAHN: But less personnel at the Havana embassy has been a blow to Cubans hoping to travel to the U.S. They must now apply in a third country for visas. For many, that means getting to Guyana, the closest place that doesn't require Cubans to have a visa.

ROSA JACQUELINE ANGULO PORTAL: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Fifty-four-year-old Rosa Jacqueline Angulo Portal went to the South American country to secure a tourist visa for herself and a business one for her husband in March. She insists she had no plans to remain in the US, just going for a visit. But once in Guyana and more than a week filling out paperwork and waiting in lines, both their visa applications were rejected.

PORTAL: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: She says between application fees, flights, and the hotel stay, they spent nearly 2,000 U.S. dollars. Cuba and the U.S. currently have an agreement to ensure a minimum of 20,000 visas are issued each year. According to a State Department official, the U.S. met that goal in the past two fiscal years, but accomplishing it in 2018 will be a significant challenge due to the staffing reductions in Havana. That means the park and businesses surrounding the U.S. embassy here will remain eerily quiet.

MAGALEES DOMINGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Magalees Dominguez sits behind a desk in her small office across the street from the embassy. She says people used to line up for her services, helping them with their immigration forms.

DOMINGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: But since Trump got into office, she says, her business has tanked. I ask her why she still opens every day. Hopefully, Trump will change his mind, she chuckles, and ease up on us Cubans soon. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.