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US Blames Cuba for Visa Shortfall


The United States said Wednesday it will not meet an agreed quota for visas for Cuban émigrés this year because the Havana government is impeding the work of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Cuba complained about a slowdown in visa processing at the U.S. post earlier this week. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

In another sign of difficulty in U.S.-Cuban relations, the State Department is accusing Cuba of impeding operations at the Interests Section and says as a consequence it will not meet its visa quota for Cubans.

In a 1994 agreement aimed at discouraging Cubans from trying to reach the United States by boat, the U.S. government agreed to issue at least 20,000 visas each fiscal year to Cubans wishing to emigrate legally.

Earlier this week, Cuba complained that fewer than 11,000 visas had been issued with less than three months remaining in the U.S. government's fiscal year, which ends September 30.

The Cuban foreign ministry Tuesday suggested the visa lag was part of a Bush administration effort to destabilize Cuba and said it could lead to a spike in illegal emigration.

The State Department responded Wednesday, with Spokesman Sean McCormack blaming Cuban bureaucratic red tape for slowing operations at the Interests Section, which he said will not issue the minimum 20,000 travel documents.

"Of course we want to meet our obligations under this accord, but frankly we've been prevented from meeting those obligations by the multiple roadblocks that I have listed here, put in place by the Cuban government that prevent us from meeting that number," said McCormack.

McCormack said Cuban authorities have prevented the U.S. Interests Section from hiring new local staff members to replace those who have resigned or retired.

He also said the Cuban government has held nearly 30 shipping containers intended for the U.S. mission at the Havana airport and seaport, while the Cuban interests section in Washington has failed to issue temporary visas for U.S. personnel needed to maintain essential systems at the downtown Havana American outpost.

McCormack said the Cuban actions have "substantially impaired" the U.S. Interests Section's ability to operate though he stopped short of saying they made it physically impossible for the staff to issue the full visa quota.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro took power and steered Cuba toward communism. The interests sections were set up in Washington and Havana in 1977 to handle consular and other routine matters.

The 1994 agreement followed a boat and raft exodus to the United States of some 35,000 Cubans. The U.S. Coast Guard has reported an increase in the number of Cubans picked up at sea lately - about 100 per week - though it says interceptions are below the levels of last year.

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