Hopeful Cubans await US visa fate at 'Park of Sighs'

Hopeful Cubans await US visa fate at 'Park of Sighs'
Cubans queue outside the US Interest Office in Havana to apply for visas.

HAVANA - Hundreds of Cubans congregate each morning outside the US interests section in Havana, hoping to get an elusive visa to visit their relatives in the united States.

This office, set up to partially restore the diplomatic contact the United States severed in 1961, was long the rallying point for anti-American protests spurred on by fiery speeches from communist leader Fidel Castro.

But it is also the spot where Cubans hope against all odds to get a US visa, a symbol of the complicated relations between the United States and the communist island 140 kilometers (90 miles) off its coast.

"I'm sure this time I'm going to pass the interview because I've prayed for it so much. I hope he'll grant me that miracle this time," said Elena Perez, 83, as she waited in a nearby square nicknamed the "Park of Sighs."

Cubans pay a non-refundable $160 (S$211.1) to apply for a visa, eight times the average monthly salary here.

Many paced up and down the park or smoked cigarettes as they waited for their interviews, but Perez, who travelled 650 kilometers (404 miles) from the eastern province of Las Tunas, sat on a bench exhausted.

"I've been to the United States three times and I've always come back. I don't see any reason why they would deny me a visa this time," she said, explaining that it had been three years since she had seen her son and four grandchildren in Miami.

She has been luckier than 78-year-old Yolanda Perez (no relation) who has been denied a visa three times.

Her son-in-law Luis Garcia, who has lived in Miami for 20 years, was at the interests section to help her apply.

"I guarantee Yolanda's not going to stay there. She has Parkinson's disease. Leaving her in a country where catching a cold costs you $10,000 would be crazy," he said.

As they weaved their way through the six different lines involved in the process, which can take up to five hours, many voiced hope that last week's announcement of a renewal in ties between the United States and Cuba would mean more visas.

But for now the sentence "You do not qualify to travel" is still heard often inside.

Since President Raul Castro took over from his older brother Fidel, the father of the Cuban Revolution, in 2006, he has loosened travel restrictions for Cubans.

The United States has also made it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit the island and began issuing more visas for Cubans -up 27 per cent to 19,500 between November 2013 and April 2014.

Thanks to the reforms, a record 327,600 people travelled between the two countries in the first half of the year.

Most travel to Miami, home to the largest Cuban diaspora worldwide.

Despite the increase, however, the number of Cubans who made the treacherous boat crossing to Florida rose sharply to 3,722 in the 12 months to September - up 75 per cent from the year before, according to Washington.

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