WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration announced Wednesday it is extending the duration of non-immigrant visas for Cuban travelers from six months to five years, two weeks after officials from the two countries resumed long-stalled migration talks.
The change also means Cubans approved for B-2 visas for family visits or personal travel will be allowed multiple entries, rather than be required to reapply in person each time they seek to travel to the United States. B-1 business and B-1/B-2 combination visas will still be for six months and a single entry.
"The increased visa validity removes procedural and financial burdens on Cuban travelers," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in an email to The Associated Press. He added that it will decrease wait times for visa interviews at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which Washington maintains instead of an embassy because the historic Cold War foes do not have full diplomatic ties.
Ventrell did not say whether the policy switch was a direct result of the July 17 migration talks in Washington. The discussions are supposed to take place every six months. However they had been on ice since January 2011, as the two countries butted heads on issues such as the imprisonment of a U.S. government subcontractor sentenced to 15 years in Cuba.
The resumption of the high-level talks, along with renewed discussions on reestablishing direct mail service, is among a number of signs of baby steps toward rapprochement in recent months. In May, a U.S. judge gave a convicted Cuban intelligence agent the green light to return to the island even though his parole following a long prison term on spy charges had not yet ended. And in June, Cuba said it would allow an American doctor to examine Alan Gross, the jailed subcontractor.
Meanwhile, Cuba has reformed its own migratory rules, ending an exit visa requirement in January that had previously been imposed on all Cubans. Islanders can still be denied passports in some cases, such as for pending legal cases against them, but a number of the most outspoken dissidents have been allowed to travel overseas since the reform.
Ventrell said, however, that the change announced Wednesday does not amount to a significant change in Washington's policy toward Havana. "The Obama administration believes these measures, in addition to others, will increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; and enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people," he wrote.