U.S. Interests Section: A place of confrontation and dreams

Video by Chris Cloonan
Text by Adam Khorasanchi

HAVANA – The United States and Cuba do not officially recognize each other; and so they do not have embassies or ambassadors in each other’s countries.

What they do have instead are “Interests Sections.”

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana opened its doors in 1977 with Lyle Lane as its first chief.

Adam Khorasanchi/JWW

While the Interests Section has served as the de facto embassy here for more than three decades, it has also been the site of political grandstanding. In 2004, Christmas lights were placed in front of the building. These lights were set up to protest the arrest and imprisonment of 75 pro-democracy activists. It was during this time that the regime of then-leader Fidel Castro condemned such decorations and characterized the Interests Section as being a “nest of spies.”

Two years later, the administration of American President George W. Bush installed a news ticker across the six-story Interests Section building. This news ticker was intended to feed anti-Castro propaganda to Cubans walking or driving by. Castro countered by installing 138 giant flagpoles across the street, effectively blocking the ticker. The number 138 was significant because it represented, to that date, the number of Cubans killed by Cuban-American exiles.

Yes, the U.S. Interests Section has been a scene of drama.

However, for many Cubans, the Interests Section is simply a place that grants visas to travel to visit or stay in the United States. And so, on any given weekday morning, one can find hundreds of hopeful Cubans lined up with family members, on their way to appointments with American officials inside the building who will accept or reject the visa application.

Anxiety and hope are on their faces.

On a day in January, a few Stony Brook University School of Journalism students visited the site where the Cubans wait, and they found Ismael Batista standing by himself. He had been there since 7:30 a.m., accompanying his wife who had an interview scheduled.

The Batistas were trying to enter the U.S. because they would like to visit their two sons in Orlando, whom they haven’t seen in more than four years. Ismael himself had applied previously for a visa and had been turned down. Now it was his wife’s turn to give it a try. As Ismael began speaking with Stony Brook student-reporters, his wife was inside the Interests Section.

Then suddenly, as he was chatting, Ismael’s eyes fixed on his wife in the distance as she exited the Section. He could sense immediately that his wife’s interview did not go well. “Oh, here she comes now, over there. She seems sad. She’s walking very slowly.”

The couple took it in stride, more or less, with the wife saying that she had done all she could, but had been rejected anyway.

She said the Americans were checking for proof that she had strong reasons for returning to Cuba at an appointed time. The Batistas believed they had such reasons. “I have my parents and other family here,” she said.

The couple also feels that parents like themselves have a human right to visit their children in another country. While they are able to talk on the phone and exchange photos with their sons in the States, the Batistas want more.

“That shouldn’t be it,” the wife said of the U.S. restrictions, “because family is a basic thing in life and we should be able to see each other.”

Despite the difficulties they have encountered in obtaining a visa, the Batistas are not giving up. “On another occasion perhaps we’ll have more luck. But we have to wait a year,” Ismael said, acknowledging the mandated one-year waiting period for another attempt.

Since 1994, the U.S. has guaranteed a minimum of 20,000 visas annually, as part of the U.S.-Cuba Migration accords. This quota was put in place following the casualties incurred during the early 1990s, when there was a mass exodus of Cubans to the States.

It was during this time that Cuba was facing a deepening economic crisis. The collapse of the Soviet Union had led to devastating consequences as Cuba had lost the Soviet economic, military, and technological assistance it had been so accustomed to receiving.

To put this in perspective, eighty percent of Cuban trade had been with Soviet bloc countries, prior to the collapse. After the collapse, this percentage effectively became zero. In an effort to weather this crisis, Cuba introduced a series of new austerity and rationing policies. While these measures kept the country afloat, they also led to widespread problems, and for the first time in Castro’s three-decade long rule, people were hungry and even desperate.

As a means of escaping poverty, roughly 30,000 Cubans set sail for the U.S., often in unsafe conditions. Both countries, recognizing the need to provide a safe and legal path for Cuban citizens to the U.S., established the U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords.

Presently, Cubans can either apply for immigrant or non-immigrant visas at the Interests Section. Immigrant visas are intended for persons wishing to establish permanent residence in the U.S., while non-immigrant visas are intended for persons wishing to travel to the States temporarily.

In order to begin the application process, a family member or associate living in the United States must contact the visa unit of the Interests Section and make an interview appointment on the applicant’s behalf. Once an interview is granted, it is the job of the applicant to be at the Interests Section on the specified date. Beginning at 7 a.m., Cubans are permitted to line up near the entrance of the consular section as they wait to be ushered in.

Applicants go in while their family members wait in the little park outside or on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. Traffic, vehicular or pedestrian, is tightly restricted in these areas, as Cuban police officers bark get-away orders at anyone venturing outside the permitted waiting sections.

From time to time, there is celebrating, as a successful applicant returns to her or his waiting relatives. But typically, as in the case of the Batistas, there is disappointment.

(Video by Chris Cloonan)