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Heartbreaking stories emerge as embassy mystery halts trips from Cuba to Tampa

Fabian Lopez performs a front sidegrab at a skate park in Havana, Cuba. Lopez is part of Toda Fuerza, a Cuban skateboarding team that had hoped to compete in Tampa last week. Those plans are off. [Cortesy of Steven Garcia]
Fabian Lopez performs a front sidegrab at a skate park in Havana, Cuba. Lopez is part of Toda Fuerza, a Cuban skateboarding team that had hoped to compete in Tampa last week. Those plans are off. [Cortesy of Steven Garcia]
Published Nov. 13, 2017

TAMPA — It's been six weeks since the U.S. Embassy in Havana stopped issuing visas to Cubans after its staff was slashed by 60 percent, a response to mysterious health attacks on American diplomats there.

Tampa is beginning to experience the fallout.

One local woman undergoing chemotherapy had hoped for her son in Cuba to come be by her side. A father was looking forward to reuniting here with family still living in the island nation. And a team of skateboarders was preparing for a trip to Tampa to showcase their talents in a competition.

And then there are the people claiming oppression in Cuba who had hoped to find refuge in Tampa, home to the third-largest Cuban-American population in the United States.

All those plans are off, as are the plans of all 100,000 Cubans who are seeking visas to the United States, according to U.S. State Department numbers.

"What has happened is, in essence, the Trump administration has barred the people of Cuba from visiting loved ones in Tampa and across the United States," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "And it is heartbreaking."

Jason Poblete, a Virginia-based attorney specializing in U.S.-Cuba policy, said it is unfair to place the blame on the United States. The health attacks occurred on Cuban soil and it was up to the government there to protect foreign diplomats, Poblete said.

"If Cuba wants access to the U.S. market, if they want visas, if they want to do business here, Cuba needs to earn that," he said. "Access to the U.S. market is a privilege, not a right."

Cuban citizens, Poblete added, need to demand more from their government.

The State Department has said personnel will return to the embassy once it is safe to do so.

Castor questions when that might be.

U.S. investigators were in Cuba as late as last month, she said, but they have been absent from the island for "long stretches" since the diplomats and their families first complained last year about health issues such as hearing loss. A sonic weapon is suspected.

"This is very serious," Castor said, but U.S. law enforcement "has not aggressively investigated the source of the U.S. diplomats' health issues."

Cubans can still apply for one of the 20,000 immigrant visas available each year for moving to the United States, but only at the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Colombia. Visas for travel to the United States from Cuba are available at any U.S. embassy outside Cuba.

In all cases, applicants must appear for in-person interviews — a tall order for most people in a country where the average citizen makes $25 a month.

Castor shared two stories of Cuban-Americans who have come to her for help. She declined to give their names.

One man, she said, arrived in Tampa in 2014 to start a new life and then send for his wife and young daughter once established. His family was scheduled for immigrant visa interviews at the embassy in Havana on Oct. 16.

A woman who moved to Tampa last November was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year. To care for her temporarily, her son arranged a visitor's visa interview for Oct. 30.

Both interviews were canceled when visa services in Havana were suspended Sept. 29.

They paid a $160 per person processing fee — non-refundable but applicable toward another application in Havana within a year if the process there resumes.

The skateboarding team, named Toda Fuerza and founded by Tampa native and New York transplant Steven Andrew Garcia, was scheduled to visit for this past weekend's Tampa Am competition. The members have never before left Cuba. They would have been the first skate team from Cuba to compete in the United States.

"They were so disappointed," Garcia said. "But we're going to now focus on (visiting) other countries."

Refugees, for now, also must find alternatives.

In mid January, the administration of President Barack Obama stopped the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy that allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil by whatever means to remain and qualify for humanitarian relief as victims of an oppressive regime.

In the policy's final three months, 16,000 Cubans arriving in Florida — some under the policy, some embassy-approved refugees and some reuniting with family — qualified for assistance through Florida Department of Children and Families. In the seven months afterward, February through September, the total fell to just 8,000.

Attorney Poblete welcomed the end of the wet foot, dry foot policy, saying some Cubans exploited it by falsely claiming to be oppressed, receiving services here, then traveling back and forth at will between the United States and Cuba.

"That calls into question whether they made a true statement about their situation in Cuba," Poblete said.

Gaining entrance as a refugee through embassies is an arduous process that takes up to three years, said Lourdes Mesias of Lutheran Services Florida, an agency that helps new arrivals. Among Cubans now, she said, "the denial rate is really high."

In fiscal 2017, 279 Cubans who went through the refugee interviews settled in Florida, according to the state DCF, compared to 411 Syrians and 350 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In Cuba, persecution is difficult to prove.

One reason, Mesias said, is Cubans cannot assemble without government approval, so when an individual claims an arrest for political dissidence, it is hard for embassy staff to determine if the claimant was singled out for his or her beliefs or simply arrested for breaking a civil ordinance.

Now, without a staff in Havana to conduct interviews, potential refugees cannot even plead their case.

Still, the State Department told the Tampa Bay Times it will soon announce alternative arrangements for Cubans seeking to come to the United States as refugees or to reunite with family. No time line was provided.

Castor suggests allowing interviews via the Internet on Skype or asking other nations' embassies in Havana to help with U.S. visa applications.

"It's unconventional," she said. "But I want them to explore these things."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.