Some diplomacy data points I have picked up during my trip to Havana in the last couple of days:
~ There are 65% more non-immigrant visas processed by the US State Department for Cubans wanting to travel into the United States this year than last year.
~ The average non-immigrant visa profile is someone in their 70s going over to see relatives in the US
~ The backlog for non-immigrant visas in the US Interests Section (Embassy-lite) used to be more than 2 years, the longest in the world. The new head of the US Interests Section, Jonathan Farrar, worked with the Cubans who help staff a significant portion of his operation, and they added a “second shift” to process more visas each day. But now the demand is so large that even with the second shift, the backlog for visa interviews is two years and three months
~ The US Interests Section in Cuba is restricted in the bilateral agreements between Cuba and the US to 51 US government employees. In addition to these, the Havana-based representative of the US Department of State employs about 300 Cuban citizens to help in its consular work — and these staff are managed and hired by Cuban government authorities.
~ If the travel ban on Americans traveling to Cuba is lifted, there will have to be a structural adjustment in the number of American diplomats permitted into Cuba. Some have suggested moving the number to 60 staff would work — but given the broad opportunities for social, cultural, political and economic engagement, this writer thinks that an upward adjusted staff target should be about 75 US personnel.
~ Spouses of American diplomats assigned to Cuba can work at the Interests Section and not count against the personnel head count. The same is true of the Cuban Interests Section staff and spouses in Washington, DC.
~ Senior officials at the US Interests Section in Havana report to TWN that there is a marked, highly noticeable change in the attitude and “posture” of the Cuban government towards US State Department and other US officials assigned to the embassy-lite operation in Havana. They state that the Cuban authorities are constructively engaging with US government personnel — and this just didn’t happen before, according to them.
~ American officials were told by the Cuban government, however, that they could not attend an environmental summit in which several leading members of the Environmental Defense Fund from Washington attended. In contrast, there was a major agricultural products/economic fair this week which US government officials stationed at the Interests Section were permitted to attend. According the State Department, this is a welcome change in the climate which is less and less constrained.
~ US officials have also been permitted recently to begin visiting various Cuban-Americans held in Cuban prisons and to visit them as part of the consular duties of the Interests Section. This used to be off the list of what was permitted, but the Cuban government has become supportive of US contact with ten or so prisoners who have dual nationality.
~ The US government has had constructive meetings with Cuban government officials on migration (the first meeting hosted by the New School in New York City) and on direct mail service. Cuban government officials have informed TWN that there are a number of other key areas of “common interest” — such as narcotics interdiction, alien smuggling, air traffic control, weather analysis and reporting, environmental policy that could be on the agenda as well — but the Cubans report that the US has not yet responded.
~ On the subject of bilateral discussions on narcotics and drug smuggling, US government officials tell TWN that the US is actually quite interested and is still waiting for the Cuban government’s proposal. (i.e., the ball is in Havana’s court — but I’m not sure Havana sees it that way)
For those who have the sense that things are not moving in the atmospherics of US-Cuba relations, that impression is wrong. Things have not stalled, at least from my perspective.
After discussions with both senior Cuban government officials and US officials, there is quite a bit of new opportunity, relaxed posturing, proposals, micro progress on a number of fronts that is not designed to be in the public eye or the media — that is consistent with two parties who have long not trusted one another trying to construct a different kind of relationship that needs confidence-building steps and healthier interaction than has historically been the case.
There is much that could still take US-Cuba relations back off the rails again, as one diplomat said, but right now there is much that appears promising.
— Steve Clemons