Members of the Cuban baseball team told Reuters on Wednesday that the United States Embassy in Havana had started processing their visa applications to attend the Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in Florida despite its restrictions on services consular, in a triumph of baseball diplomacy.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana suspended consular services three years ago when the Trump administration reduced them to skeletal staff, sending applicants to embassies abroad instead.
This has proven to be a major obstacle for Cubans applying for visas to see their families or travel to the United States, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cuban baseball fans fear their team will receive the visas they need to compete in the Tokyo Olympics qualifying tournament. The tournament takes place in West Palm Beach, Florida and Port St Lucie from May 31 to June 5.
But a Reuters witness saw a group of players and baseball team officials outside the embassy on Wednesday. Two players and a coach said they were there for their visa appointments, with some scheduled for others later in the week.
“I applied for my visa and they interviewed me, now we have to wait for them to confirm that I got the visa,” said catcher Ivan Prieto, 24, wearing a baseball cap from the ‘National team.
The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether this was an exception or whether it was a sign that it would begin processing the US visas for Cubans in Havana.
“It is really important for Cuba to be at the Olympics. It is one of the best performing countries and that would be a real badge of honor,” said Prieto.
The Cuban baseball team won gold at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004. Baseball has not been featured at the Olympics since 2008.
The administration of former US President Donald Trump has slashed staff at the US Embassy in Havana after a wave of illness among diplomats that remains unexplained.
But as reports of similar incidents occurring elsewhere spread, many analysts say the policy needs to be reviewed, not least because it hurts the Cuban people. Read more
Cuban officials say the move was politically motivated, designed to contribute to the deterioration of US-Cuban relations. Trump had said he wanted to end socialism in Latin America and force the Cuban communist government to reform.
“It’s a good step that they are dealing with (the visas) here,” said first baseman Guillermo Aviles, 28.
Many Cubans are hopeful that US President Joe Biden, who took office in January, will restart consular services in Havana and restore official channels for US remittances to Cuba. Read more
Biden, a Democrat, has vowed during his campaign to reverse Republican Trump’s policy changes that “have inflicted damage on the Cuban people and have done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” .
He was vice president when former President Barack Obama agreed to a historic detente with then Cuban President Raul Castro and in 2016, while traveling to Havana, attended an exhibition match between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays of the MLB with Castro.
However, the Biden administration said a change in Cuban policy was not among its top foreign policy priorities.
In the Florida tournament, Cuba will face in Group B its baseball compatriots Venezuela, Canada and Colombia. Group A will see playoffs between the United States, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua.
“It will be difficult but not impossible (to classify),” said coach Carlos Marti, waiting in a park near the US embassy for his interview with US officials. “Our pitchers showed a good level.”
To pursue NBC Latino at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.