Editorial: Canada must restore full consular activities in Havana

Antique cars and architecture in Havana. (Photo by Mark Medicoff)

The Canadian government has inflicted considerable hardship on hundreds of Cubans with its sudden curtailment of consular services at its embassy in Havana.

The move, which follows the unexplained and still mysterious medical symptoms reported by embassy staff and some family members, has shattered the educational and professional plans of Cubans. It also has seriously disrupted travel plans of Cubans who have family ties in Canada. The move, in early May, mirrored the one made by the United States, whose personnel is reporting similar symptoms that have yet to be traced to any source.

While Canada drastically reduced embassy staff in January, in May Foreign Affairs Canada abruptly announced it would no longer process applications for visitor and residence visas or work and study permits.

Suspicious minds suggest this was a copy-cat move reflecting the American initiative, whereby since 2017, Cubans have been forced to go to third countries for visa applications.

Cubans wishing to visit Canada now have to travel to Mexico for in-person contact with Canadian consular officials, imposing a huge burden on them, and adding substantially to the cost. And there is no certainty that the applications will be approved. Cubans can also do some of the work online, but again, Cubans have only limited Internet access and even then it comes at a substantial cost that few can afford.

For example, a medical doctor who has been coming to Montreal for 19 years to attend a four-day osteopathic conference had to cancel his airline ticket when he could not renew his multiple-entry visa, (renewed every five years) because of the embassy closure. As it is, it is very complicated for medical professionals to travel to conferences as they need permission from the Ministry of Health.

Another young couple had applied to study in Winnipeg where she had been accepted to university. After depositing over $27,000 in a Canadian Bank as required by the Canadian government and flying to Mexico City to complete their “biometrics,” they were rejected because they were deemed unwilling to return to their country after the four years of study. This story is not directly linked to the closing of the embassy except that they had to pay to fly to Mexico City and even then, were rejected. Very few Cubans even have visas for Mexico or the money to get there and back.

Similar stories of interrupted educational and professional advancement plans are posted online, as are curtailment of planned visits by those with Cuban family members who live here and count on regular reunions.

We urge the Canadian government to make arrangements with other friendly embassies so its officials can carry out consular activities on Canada’s behalf. This is common practice when countries break off relations and empower others to carry out consular duties.

Canada has always maintained good relations with Cuba. More than one million Canadians vacation there each year, and Canadian companies maintain solid business relations in Cuba. There is no reason why Canada should allow curtailment of consular operations in Havana to persist. The hardship imposed on many Cubans and their relatives and friends here is real and unnecessary.

While the Canadian government has been under a lot of pressure to protect the health of its employees in Havana, it has failed to provide practical alternatives for Cubans seeking consular services.

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