Government reinstating some visa services at embassy in Cuba

The Canadian Embassy in Havana is reinstating some visa and biometric services after months of pushback from Canadians and Cubans.

Immigration processing in Havana was suspended after unexplained health problems

Visitors wait at the entrance of the Canadian Embassy in Havana. Some of the embassy's curtailed services will be reinstated starting Aug. 1. (Desmond Boylan/The Associated Press)

The Canadian Embassy in Havana is reinstating some visa and biometric services after months of pushback from Canadians and Cubans.

Starting Aug. 1, Cuban residents will again be able to get the fingerprints and photos needed for applications done at the embassy, as well as drop off passports and pick up visas at the building. 

Early this summer, the government announced it was suspending services like visa and permanent residency processing in Havana due to unexplained illnesses among Canadian and U.S. diplomats dating back to the spring of 2017. 

Staffing at the embassy has been skeletal since January, after headaches, dizziness and nausea plagued over a dozen Canadians in Havana. The cause of the mysterious health incidents is still unknown.

This new announcement doesn't restore the full list of curtailed services, but Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says it will make the process quicker, easier and less costly for applicants.

Throughout the year, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said several times his office is working on a solution to the embassy issues.

"This decision wasn't taken lightly," a June statement from the his office read, adding the workers need to be protected.

Families, businesses in limbo

Meanwhile, frustrated Cuban-Canadian families have been stuck in limbo for months, separated from their loved ones, waiting for answers. 

"You're separating couples. You're separating families by doing this," Jacqueline Stein, who is sponsoring her Cuban husband to come to Canada, said to CBC News.

Businesses have also been affected, as Cubans who want work or study permits to Canada face added roadblocks and costs.

Lawrence Levin runs a technology training company that includes curriculum for Cuban students. Since the cutbacks, his customers and employees are struggling to get to Canada — forcing the company to move the course and its staff from Ontario to Mexico for the time being.

"The pain and suffering they are exacting on Cubans is ridiculous," he said.

Fidel Alejandro Gamboa Traba and his Canadian wife Jacqueline Stein are in Cuba while their family immigration sponsorship application is processed, but they haven't been able to complete the final steps with the embassy cutbacks. (Supplied/YouTube)

Dozens are upset with the government, but the official response from Cuba was blistering.

That January week that Canada halved embassy staff, the Cuban ambassador — who very rarely wades into these issues — said Canada's decision was "incomprehensible."

While Canada, the U.S. and Cuba investigate the cause of the illnesses, the curtailment at the embassy threatens diplomatic relations.

Ambassador Josefina Vidal added that the downsize won't "help find answers to the health symptoms reported by Canadian diplomats, and which will have an impact on the relations."

The issue resurfaced in June, when Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland met with Cuban officials. 

She said the embassy issues were an ongoing topic between the countries and at those meetings.

"I really want to reiterate that the measures that have been taken in our embassy in Cuba are in no way a political decision," she said.

"I have real sympathy for the Canadians and the Cubans who are facing some real difficulties as a result of this situation."

Some services still on hold

Despite the update, some will still face uncertainty. 

The embassy still isn't accepting paper applications for permits or visas. The government is encouraging people to apply online.

Because of meagre staffing, all active applications have been moved from Havana to Mexico City for processing. Permanent resident applicants will still have to travel outside Cuba for any required medical exams or interviews. 

It's challenging for Cubans, who almost always require travel permits to enter those other countries — meaning they have to obtain a second visa just to complete the process for their Canadian applications.


Elise von Scheel is CBC Calgary's politics reporter and the producer of the West of Centre podcast. You can get in touch with her at elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.

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