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The United States Embassy in Cuba has reopened visa and consular services

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. Embassy in Cuba has resumed full consular and visa services in Havana for the first time since 2017.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. says the reopening is to ensure the safe and legal migration of Cubans. It comes during a mass exodus from the island.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Eyder Peralta joins us now from his base in Mexico City. Eyder, let's start with the basics. Why was the embassy closed, and what does this reopening mean?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Yeah. So there was a huge drawdown of staff in 2017, and that happened after the U.S. accused Cuba of these so-called sonic attacks on American diplomats. And what actually happened remains a mystery. But now the embassy says it is staffed, and it is ready to process all immigrant visas. And when there was this skeletal staff, if you were Cuban looking for a visa, you had to fly to Guyana. Now Cubans can process their visas in Havana. But as you noted, this comes at an extraordinary time for Cuba. Last year, about 250,000 Cubans left the island. But the Biden administration says it wants to issue about 20,000 visas this year. So there very well might be a huge mismatch between the Cubans who want to leave and the visas that are available.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and those sonic attacks were dubbed the Havana syndrome, very mysterious term there. So, OK, what does this reopening mean then? It doesn't seem like much is going to change.

PERALTA: I mean, I think it's likely that this won't lead to dramatic changes because Cuba is just in the middle of a huge economic crisis, which is a long time in the making. I mean, first, the help it was getting from Venezuela collapsed. Then the Trump administration hit it with new sanctions. Then it got hit by COVID and hurricanes and a huge fire on its main power plants. So Cubans are having a hard time getting the basics, everything from food to fuel. And this is the worst crisis Cuba has faced since the end of the Cold War.

And it's hard to overstate how many Cubans are looking to leave. By some estimates, Cuba lost 2% of its population last year. U.S. Border Patrol says they've seen a 400% increase in migrants in the Florida sector since October. And, of course, we see it here in Mexico. Lots of Cuban migrants make it to Central America, and they walk north. It's worth noting that President Biden will deliver a speech about immigration today, and he will be here in Mexico next week. And certainly he and his Mexican counterpart will be talking immigration.

MARTÍNEZ: And Eyder, what's the Cuban government saying about this?

PERALTA: I mean, like they've done in the past, they're blaming the U.S. embargo for the troubles. But President Miguel Diaz-Canel actually gave a realistic assessment in his New Year's speech. He called 2022 one of the worst two years in decades, and he warned that 2023 could be worse. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MIGUEL DIAZ-CANEL: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He called on Cubans to work with passion to continue defying the impossible. He said that he welcomes hope this new year. So clearly, there are no easy answers in Cuba at the moment.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Eyder Peralta from Mexico City. Eyder, thanks a lot.

PERALTA: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.