Thursday, April 27, 2006

US to end delays scams for Cuba visa seekers

US to end delays, scams for Cuba visa seekers
Tue Apr 25, 2006 3:46 PM ET

By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - The United States will introduce sweeping changes in
the way Cubans apply for visitors' visas to end long delays and
corruption in the process, the top U.S. consular official on the
Caribbean island said on Tuesday.

"Currently, our visitor visa applicants have to go through a torturous
process of trying to call in to set up an appointment. It is very
difficult to get a line, and so our clients have been paying anywhere
from $20 to $100 on the street to make appointments," Consul General
Carl Cockburn said.

As of May 25, family members or other potential U.S. hosts will call a
toll-free number to make the appointments for the Cuban applicants, who
can then simply show up at the U.S. Interests Section on the given date
for an interview.

The United States and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations, but
maintain lower level missions in each other's capitals to handle visa
and other matters.

Cuba has a population of 11.2 million and another million Cubans and
Cuban-Americans live in the United States.

Around 30,000 Cubans applied to visit the United States in fiscal 2005,
of whom 12,500 were granted visas, Cockburn said. Another 20,125 Cubans
were allowed permanent U.S. entry under an immigration agreement signed
in 1994.

A call center in Mexico owned by a Virginia-based company will run the
operation. which will also provide an accelerated service for
humanitarian emergencies. Prospective hosts will pay $11 to set up as
many as five appointments. There is currently a five-month wait for

Cockburn said the system was widely used by the United States abroad,
although only in communist Cuba's case would hosts, not applicants, make
the appointments.

Cubans complain that it has become so hard to reach the Interests
Section by phone they must pay third parties to make an appointment for

"Many people have paid up to $120 ... how is someone going to come up
with $120 just to make an appointment where you will probably be
denied?" said 57-year-old Mercedes Pena, who has unsuccessfully applied
to visit her sons six times in 12 years.

Cockburn, who spoke to a small group of foreign journalists in Havana,
said many investigations had failed to find why appointment calls got
through only when placed by third parties, but said there was no
indication the problem originated with his staff.

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