Communist Party newspaper Granma published a lengthy interview with a U.S. diplomat Monday, making for highly unusual reading in a country where the official media routinely depict Washington envoys as hostile agents in cahoots with enemies of the Cuban government.
In the full-page article, Granma journalists quizzed Consul General Timothy Roche about the requirements and procedures for obtaining a U.S. visa, and more generally about U.S. migratory policy for islanders. The U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy since the countries do not have formal diplomatic relations, has fielded increased inquires about the subject since a new Cuban travel law took effect Jan. 14.
Roche was quoted as saying that the U.S. government "looks positively" on the reform, which eased bureaucratic hurdles to overseas travel and ended a long-detested exit visa requirement, and that U.S. migratory regulations "have not changed in any aspect."
It was the first time in many years that a U.S. diplomat conducted such an interview with local media, underscoring the importance that both of the Cold War rivals place on the migration issue despite more than five decades of bad blood.
"It highlights the fact that even though the political relationship is very tough, there's a lot of travel back and forth, and the U.S. consulate is large and is processing applications for visas every day," said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute think tank.
"I think it (the article) serves both countries' interests," Peters added. "But yeah, it's certainly unusual."
Roche declined to answer Granma's questions about the Cuban Adjustment Act, which lets islanders who reach the United States stay and fast-tracks them for residency, or a program designed to entice Cuban medical professionals to defect.
Havana often complains about those rules, saying they encourage islanders to attempt dangerous sea crossings and cause "theft of talent," Cuban government-speak for brain-drain.
Granma listed the State Department webpage where people can file applications and a phone number where family members in the United States can call to schedule appointments. Some content from the interview was aired on the afternoon news broadcast.
The Interests Section approached Granma earlier this year and offered the interview, which took place in late February. Most Cubans do not have Internet access and thus are unable to view the Section's website.
"We had all this inquiry, and information that we wanted to get out to Cubans about the visa process, and we don't have a way to do that," a U.S. official in Havana told The Associated Press. The official had not been authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"This time we just said, well, let's just treat this like we would ... in any other country," the official said. "Write a letter to the newspaper and say, 'Here's what we would like to offer because we think it's important to your audience.'"
The affirmative reply was surprising, the official added: "Maybe they also think it's important that people have the information. They see the lines every day" that form outside the Interests Section of people waiting for visa appointments.
The U.S. charges $160 per visa application and the wait can be up to 18 months. Cubans seeking immigrant visas to reunite with family in the United States must show an invitation from a relative who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, while would-be tourists must demonstrate strong ties to the island.
"Consular officials assume that all applicants for temporary visas are possible immigrants," Roche said.
It's exceedingly rare for U.S. envoys to appear in such a way in Cuba's government-controlled media. In 1994, then-Interests Section chief Joseph Sullivan spoke for about 15 minutes on state TV to explain U.S. migration policies. And during a migratory crisis in 2003, local media published a statement from then-chief James Cason discouraging Cubans from hijacking planes or boats.
But usually Cuban newspapers and state TV are in the business of demonizing U.S. diplomats, accusing them of paying for and orchestrating the "subversive" activities of anti-government dissidents.
The official described the interview as a respectful give-and-take and said the Granma article accurately reflected the conversation.
"It was all quite normal," the official said.
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