BY WILFREDO CANCIO ISLA | El Nuevo Herald
Beginning May 25, nonimmigrant visa applications for Cubans living on the island may be made over the phone by their relatives in the United States, consular authorities announced Tuesday in Havana.
The new information service of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (USINT) will deal with the processing of visas for family visits and business trips but will not apply to requests for immigration visas or the refugee program, for which the applicants must appear in person.
The Section hopes the new service will guarantee greater transparency to a process that in recent years has been hampered by a flourishing black market in ‘‘queue-spot holders’’ who would sell consular appointments for $20 to $100.
The processing of visa applications in Havana has been criticized because these intermediaries regularly take advantage of applicants who must travel long distances to Havana.
‘‘We want to have an absolutely transparent system of applications,’’ said Consul General Carl Cockburn in Havana.
In a telephone interview with El Nuevo Herald, Cockburn explained that the service is already working successfully in 37 countries.
‘We are committed to offering a more efficient service to our clients and don’t want to see ourselves involved in the mysteries and the `funny business’ that are affecting this process,’’ he said.
Relatives and friends in the U.S. can request interviews in the name of the Cuban residents by calling a toll-free telephone number (1-866-374-1769) that can be dialed from any American city.
The service will be available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with English-speaking and Spanish-speaking operators. Callers must first buy a personal identification number (PIN) that costs $11. Interviews can be arranged for as many as five members of a family.
Interviews requested prior to May 25 will be honored without the need for additional confirmation.
Cubans who have no relatives or contacts in the U.S. to arrange for an interview will have to send their applications to the USINT via fax.
The cost of the visa processing will remain at 93 convertible pesos (about $100) and will not be reimbursed if the visa is not granted.
During fiscal year 2005, the USINT approved 12,500 of the 30,000 visa applications submitted to its office in Havana.