Visa service for Cuban citizens seeking to visit the United States is a casualty of the diplomatic pullback by Washington, threatening the cultural exchange programs and visits from Cubans that Tampa had embraced.
The State Department announced Friday that it is cutting staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana by 60 percent in response to mysterious health problems affecting its diplomats in Cuba's capital city. Until the socialist government can prove it's safe for staffers to return, visas will not be processed there.
"Many of my neighbors who have been waiting for the opportunity to reconnect with loved ones now face unnecessary and heartbreaking barriers," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat who has worked to normalize relations with Cuba.
The United States has been providing 20,000 visas a year to Cuban immigrants and hundreds of thousands to visitors.
"Cubans have to go in for interviews to receive visas," said Collin Laverty, president of Washington, D.C.-based Cuba Educational Travel. "U.S. diplomats sometimes have to handle hundreds of interviews a day. It's a lot for a full staff."
A shorthanded one, he added, may not be able to keep up.
Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez, a longtime a critic of the socialist government, said he remains confident the U.S. Embassy in Havana will find a way to issue visas at least to those fearing persecution for taking on the Cuban government.
"It serves the U.S. to have people oppose the regime," Fernandez said, "and we can't turn a blind eye to their plight if they get in trouble."
On Monday, the State Department expelled 15 diplomats from Cuba's embassy in Washington, D.C., so staffing there matches that of America's embassy in Havana. The move is not expected to stop Americans from visiting Cuba, a process of simply filling out forms.
"The Cuban embassy has faced situations like this or worse in the past," said Vicente Amor, vice president of Tampa travel company ASC International USA. "They have always found a way to serve the Cuban-American community and American travelers."
But exchanges require freedom of travel from both sides.
In Tampa, with deep historic ties to Cuba that date to the founding of the cigar industry here in the late 1800s, exchanges include musicians performing, filmmakers showcasing their work and artists taking up temporary residence.
They also include research.
The H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute is seeking a memorandum of understanding with health centers in Havana to work on joint research.
And for two years, the Florida Aquarium and Cuba's National Aquarium have collaborated on ways to save the coral reefs dying in Caribbean waters.
Margo McKnight, vice president of biological operations at the Florida Aquarium, hopes the United States will allow an exception to its visa suspension for science.
Even with an exception, McKnight said, exchanging staff may "require longer lead times, often months already, and may hamper some time-sensitive work."
Still, she said, "we are very concerned about the health of the staff at the embassy."
So is Rafael Pizano, who has family in Cuba and is spokesman for Casa de Cuba, a Tampa group that opposes Cuba's leadership.
"Those are diplomats and U.S. citizens," he said. "Being Cuban-American, I have a passion for both countries yet the safety of our officials is the priority. If visas must come to stop, it is a sacrifice I am willing to see."
The U.S. government has not directly blamed Cuba for what it now calls health attacks, which have left more than 20 diplomats with problems such as brain injury and hearing loss.
But there is some good news in Cuba-Tampa cultural exchanges: A highly anticipated performance by the Cuban National Ballet is still on for May at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
Travel arrangements were made prior to visa suspension.
In the meantime, against this chilly backdrop, the Tampa City Council will send a delegation to Cuba next week seeking future partnerships.
"We have seen ups and downs with our government's relationship with Cuba," said council member Yvonne Capin, part of the delegation. "Eventually, I believe those doors will open permanently."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.