A woman waves good-bye before boarding a flight at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba, in June 2017. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS

(IPS) – Cuban migration to the United States is the great loser under Donald Trump’s hostile policy toward Cuba, and creates additional difficulties for citizens of this Caribbean island nation who were accustomed to benefits that their neighbors in the rest of Latin America never enjoyed.

In a decision that keeps uncertainty hanging over thousands of people who wanted to travel to the U.S. by legal means, Washington suspended visas for residents of the island after ordering the removal of 60 percent of the staff in the Cuban embassy on Sept. 29.

“I cried a lot after the closure of the consular procedures in Havana,” a private sector worker told IPS. A year and five months ago her husband requested that she be allowed to immigrate to the United States to join him, under the Family Reunification Programme, which Washington assured it will keep in place, but without providing details.

This woman who lives in the capital, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she is less worried after receiving the new documents by mail this week to move forward with the application.

“Look, until now all the documents I had received referred to my case with a number. Now these have my full name,” she said.

“I still don’t have an appointment date and I don’t know where I will have to go for the visa interview, but my husband and I feel confident that everything will stay on track,” she said with a sigh of relief. For this step in the visa process she will probably have to travel to Colombia, where the U.S. embassy announced that it will attend cases in November.

“We know that Cubans are worried about this, but we still do not have instructions on how to proceed,” a source at the Colombian diplomatic mission, who asked not to be identified because she was not authorised to talk about the question, told IPS on Monday. Like most countries, Colombia requires visas for Cuban travelers.

The Washington delegation in Havana has reported on its website that Cubans who will be required to travel to Colombia include those who are applying for immigrant visas for fiancés, relatives of US citizens or people who have won one of the visas from the so-called “lottery”.

Those who wish to obtain visitor, tourist or business visas will have to go to the U.S. embassy in any other country. It is still unclear how they will guarantee the continued operation of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program (CFRP) and the processing of refugees.

The bilateral climate has soured since the Trump administration cited alleged “acoustic attacks” at the U.S. embassy in Havana that reportedly affected the health of more than a score of its diplomats and their family members. Cuba insists that it had nothing to do with the incidents, which are still under investigation.

The U.S. also warned its citizens to refrain from traveling to Cuba for security reasons and demanded the departure of 15 officials from the Cuban embassy in Washington directly linked to consular and commercial matters, whose absence will hinder the relationship between people and companies from the two countries.

Such measures can have a “very damaging” effect on the (1994 and 1995) migration agreements between the two countries, political analyst Carlos Alzugaray told IPS. In his opinion, the decision to process visas in a third country will raise the costs which are already high.

It is possible that an increase in irregular immigration will occur, Emily Mendrala, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, an organisation that promotes a policy based on reciprocity and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty, told IPS.

“Even if the United States can live up to its commitment under the 1994 and 1995 Migration Agreements to admit 20,000 immigrants (per year), under current consular practices the number of non-immigrant visas issued to Cubans visiting the United States will drop drastically,” she said.

The expert said that applicants for immigrant visas will undoubtedly have a sponsor in the United States willing to pay the airfare and lodging expenses in Colombia, and also said that the refusal rates for nonimmigrant visas are higher and the cost of the trip, even if it is from any third country, “will be prohibitive.”

Internet users consulted by IPS agreed that in this context, “poor Cubans suffer, both here and there.”

In turn, a university professor, who asked not to be identified, said he believed that behind everything that is happening is the aim to create internal tensions and raise “the temperature of the (social) boiling pot”.

On Jan. 12, 2017, a few days before leaving the White House, then President Barack Obama announced the end of the so-called wet foot/dry foot policy, in force since the 1994 and 1995 agreements, which gave Cuban immigrants preferential treatment to obtain residence and other benefits.

“By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries,” said Obama, who also terminated the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, intended to welcome Cuban doctors who defected from their official missions in third countries.

The fear that the process of normalisation of bilateral relations, restored in July 2015, could put an end to special benefits for Cuban immigrants prompted thousands of Cubans to leave this country legally and to try to reach the United States from other Latin American nations.

Those countries closed their borders to the waves of travelers from Cuba, leading to a migration crisis involving several countries in the region. During 2016, a total of 6,000 frustrated migrants were returned to Cuba, according to official data, while a number difficult to pin down still remain hopeful and refuse to return.

The biannual review of the migration agreements was for almost two decades the only point of contact between the two countries. In that scenario, the Cuban government vehemently rejected the wet foot/dry foot policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

Havana argued that these laws encouraged Cubans to defect, even at the risk of their lives. The immigration reform approved by President Raúl Castro in 2013 helped prevent clandestine departures.

The main recipient of Cuban migrants is the United States, where just over two million people of Cuban origin live, of whom almost 1.2 million were born in Cuba, according to official data from that country cited by Antonio Aja, director of the state University of Havana’s Center for Demographic Studies (Cedem), in an article on the subject.