1. Opinion

Editorial: U.S. should resume processing visas for Cubans

The health attacks reported on American diplomats in Cuba deserve a serious investigation, and the Cuban government's cooperation in the case will — for better or for worse — shape the emerging relationship between the two nations. But the Trump administration should not link that probe with the processing of visas for Cubans seeking to visit the United States. That only hurts ordinary Cubans and their Tampa Bay relatives, not the island's communist government, and it is yet another example of the harm from this pinched approach to foreign policy.

The U.S. Embassy in Havana stopped issuing visas to Cubans six weeks ago after slashing the embassy staff by 60 percent. The action was taken after some U.S. diplomats and their families complained of hearing loss and other health-related effects from what may have been a campaign involving sonic weapons aimed at embassy workers. Tampa Bay Times staff writer Paul Guzzo reported Monday that the scare has shut down visa operations, with huge fallout in the Tampa Bay area, home to the third-largest population of Cuban-Americans in the United States.

Cubans who were claiming oppression at home and who had hoped to find refuge here suddenly find themselves out of luck. One local woman who is undergoing chemotherapy had hoped for her son in Cuba to join her at her side. A Cuban man who arrived in Tampa in 2014 and had established himself had hoped to bring his wife and young daughter to the area. But plans for both collapsed after the United States suspended visa services in the Cuban capital, Havana, on Sept. 29. They are among 100,000 Cubans seeking visas to the United States and are now in limbo. "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, who has called attention to the issue.

A U.S. investigation into the sonic attacks is ongoing, but there is no reason that visas cannot be processed in a normal manner at the same time. As it stands, Cubans can still apply for one of the 20,000 immigrant visas available each year to move to the United States, but only at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. Forcing Cubans to travel there for in-person interviews is too costly for citizens of a country where the average wage is $25 per month. Castor has asked U.S. authorities to consider allowing online applications or for other nations to help by opening up their embassies in Havana. The State Department told the Times it would announce alternative plans soon, but it provided no details or time line.

This is a good issue for Castor, whose constituents need the United States and Cuba to cooperate. Already the Trump administration has announced curbs on the Obama-era policy easing trade and travel restrictions with Cuba, and the two sides have developed a frosty tone after what was considered a promising new era. Any attacks by the Cuban government on the health or safety of U.S. personnel deserve a harsh response. But this reaction hurts those Cubans most interested in maintaining or nurturing ties with America. That doesn't serve U.S. interests at all, and it's out of proportion to what authorities know about the case so far.

The embassy pullout reflects this administration's inclination to disengage. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is pushing ahead with plans to cut the department staff by nearly 2,000 people, or 8 percent, even as America's historic adversaries, Russia and China, move to the fill the political and economic void. Though the pullback in Cuba was a response to a specific concern, shutting down the visa operation is the same abandonment tactic that this administration is pursuing on the broader diplomatic front. Washington should quickly find an effective way to process these visa applications. This nation has no interest in keeping Cuban-American families apart, or in curtailing the exposure of Cubans to a free society.