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'Definitely a positive thing': Cuban American reacts to new visa and flight rules towards Cuba

Cuban Family Reunification Program Westchester Library.jpeg
Daniel Rivero
/
WLRN
Cuban-Americans gathered at the Westchester Regional Library in November of 2019 to try to get solutions to the stoppage of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program. The program has been indefinitely paused ever since suspected sonic attacks led to a staffing reduction at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

"Doing this is not a matter of politics. This is human lives," says Niubis Robaina.

Since 2017, the Cuban Family Resettlement Parole Program has been on hold – it was a casualty of the Trump Administration nearly shutting down all operations in the U.S. Embassy in Havana due to suspected “sonic attacks.”

An explanation for the suspected attacks has not been reached by scientists; after Havana, similar events have been reported across the globe.

Thousands of families since then have been stuck in an immigration limbo, having paid the fees to the U.S. government for processing under the reunification program, yet being unable to receive the immigration services they paid for.

WLRN is here for you, even when life is unpredictable. Our journalists are continuing to work hard to keep you informed across South Florida. Please support this vital work. Become a WLRN member today. Thank you.

The program was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007.

For the last several years, Cuban American families have lobbied the federal government to restart the program. In its absence, Cubans on the island were forced to travel to the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, to have their visas processed, an arduous and expensive journey that many Cubans could simply not afford.

A plan introduced by Democrats in 2019 would have restarted the program by utilizing more video conferencing; a separate proposal sponsored by mostly Republicans called for processing the visas at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

This week, the Biden Administration announced that it will once again start processing visas for Cuban citizens beginning later this month, one part of a controversial shift for U.S.-Cuba relations.

An estimated 100,000 Cubans are caught in the overall visa backlog, including all kinds of visas that have been on hold. With legal options for Cuban immigration virtually brought to a standstill, the U.S. has seen a sharp uptick of illegal Cuban boats leaving for Florida, and a record number of Cubans arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Cuban government's historic wave of repression following last year's July 11 protests against the communist dictatorship has only led to more exasperation from Cubans seeking to flee the island.

To understand the ramifications of this shift in policy, WLRN spoke with Niubis Robaina, a Cuban-born U.S. citizen in Miami who has been pushing for change with a group of affected families. Her family has been stuck in the program’s backlog since 2017.

We also spoke to her about some of the other changes that have been announced by the Biden administration.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

WLRN: : The Biden administration made a pretty major announcement that they're changing a whole range of U.S. policies towards Cuba. One of them is the continuation of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program. I've talked to you in the past about this. Your family was kind of caught in the middle waiting years for that program to get started again. What's the significance of of restarting this?

ROBAINA: Everyone in the group, my family, everybody's happy because like you said, we have a lot of family members that are in the middle of this since 2017. They went on interviews. They got approved and they were waiting on their documents to travel and all of a sudden everything got stopped and the documents are still stuck in Havana.

Since then, until today, we didn't know anything about this program. We didn't know it was going to be restarted. We didn't know if it was going to be taken away.

WLRN: And what impact has it had on families kind of stuck in the middle, that have already paid their their fees to the U.S. government to process, these kind of things? They've been stuck in this limbo for years. What's the human impact of that?

ROBAINA: Many members have died on the process. Others have decided to come another way, crossing the ocean or crossing the border. Many have lost their lives. Some make it, and then they are very traumatized by what happened.

Doing this is not a matter of politics. This is human lives, you know. They're getting the risk of crossing the border or coming through the ocean when they have everything legally to come to this country.

Not only that, but for us living here in the United States, it's also damaging. We have to pay a lot of money for this service. And even though they're in limbo, we have to continue paying for this paperwork to be on time. They are up to date, and everything is ready for whenever they open again. We U.S. citizens are being affected by this, if you want to see economically, economically too.

WLRN: Since the embassy was shut down in 2017 because of suspected sonic attacks, we've seen an uptick in illegal Cuban migration to the U.S.. There's been more boats arriving to Florida than we've seen in a very long time. We are seeing record numbers of Cubans showing up on the U.S.-Mexico border. Is that something that you think has played into the U.S. government deciding to restart what it was doing for a long time, which is processing visas in Cuba?

ROBAINA: The U.S. administrators have seen how many people are coming illegally and who are like: 'We're not going to wait anymore.' This is what pushed them to, you know, say ‘we got to do something about this.’ Definitely.

WLRN: One of the other big changes is that the Biden administration is now going to allow flights to other provinces outside of Havana. So people will be able to take possibly direct flights from Miami to Matanzas, Holguín or Santiago de Cuba. What impact is that going to have on a lot of Cuban American families here in Florida?

ROBAINA: It's definitely a positive thing. I myself am not from Havana, and whenever I travel to Cuba to drive three to four hours to get to my city in order to see my family.

Number one, the flight tickets are going to go down. Cuba is 45 minutes away, but you're paying $800 for one ticket. And that's not fair. Honestly, it's not fair.

Number two, people are still going to Cuba even when the flight was only to Havana. So, I mean, the previous administration thought this was going to reduce the flow of Cubans going to Cuba. Personally didn't see that happening. It's the opposite. Most of the Cuban Americans that I know here in Miami, they were still traveling to Cuba. They were just paying a lot more money.

WLRN: On some level this is very personal, it's a very family related thing. It's people like you being able to go see their families, bring help to their families and whatnot. But there's also the unavoidable political aspect of this, of how is this going to play out politically. What are your thoughts on how it's going to play out? Are people going to be happy or are people going to be? 

ROBAINA: For many people here in Miami, this is not going to be a very happy news for many. I know a lot of Cuban Americans, they don't want any type of relationship with Cuba. They don't want people to go visit their families. They don't want people to be sending money or any goods to them or traveling there.

They just want communism to end. And they see that the way it's going to end is if we stop doing all of these things for our family. But the reality is, it's not the truth. If I stop sending money to my family, is that going to help the communism fall? If I stop going to Cuba to visit my family, is that going to help the communism fall?

I get both sides, but I don't think I don't think many people are going to be happy about this. The people that are involved and this family reunification thing, I can assure you they're at 100% happy about this.

The thing about this is that they mixed everything together. So when some happy news comes out for family reunification, people don't get it the right way because it comes with something else. You know, they're sending money or traveling to Cuba or allowing more stuff for Cuba. Everything goes in the same pack.

WLRN: Right. Because in addition to the things that we've already talked about, the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program being reopened and flights to provinces, there's also things – like you will be able to send more money to families on the island. It was very restricted before. Also we see that it will mean reopening “person to person” travel, which a lot of people see as tourism. And a lot of people say, well, that's going to give a lifeline to the Cuban government. 

ROBAINA: That is true. There are some things that maybe they should have done.

The part of the Cuban reunification for family – that I see 100% as a ‘yes’ because we pay for it. U.S. citizens, U.S. Cuban citizens paid for it. So this is the right that we pay for and somebody has to answer for it. So that one I see it as correct. The flights I see it as correct.

In regards to the tourism, I don't know how people are going to see that. I personally don't see it as a good thing. Like you said, it’s going to help out the government.

But we are the United States of America. How are you going to prohibit your own citizens from going anywhere that they want? That's the way I see it. There's people that want to go visit Cuba and the U.S. government says, “you can't travel to Cuba.” There's two sides to this story. That's the reality.

I'm here giving my opinion, but I know all this might come back to me at some point, because I have a lot of friends that don’t think things the way I do. But the way I see it is something's got to change in order for communism to fall.

I don't think penalizing the families – either with the travel or with the money or with the family reunification – I don't think that's going to change anything.