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Canadian-Cuban families appeal for help after visa processing halted at Havana embassy | CBC News

Canadians who are separated from their Cuban family members because of the embassy downsizing in Havana are sending Ottawa a plea for help.

"Dear Government of Canada," the tear-filled video begins. Then nine Canadians and Cubans — spouses, children, a professor and a student — explain the havoc the cutbacks have created in their lives.

"You're separating couples. You're separating families by doing this," Canadian Jacqueline Stein, who spent nine days making the video with her Cuban husband, said in an interview with CBC News.

A month ago, Canada announced its consulate in Havana will no longer be processing visa or permanent residency applications due to staffing cutbacks over unexplained health incidents. 

Cubans now are being told to travel to other countries that have Canadian consulates to complete their applications.

Canadian and U.S. diplomats posted to Havana began complaining of unexplained dizziness, headaches and nausea in the spring of 2017. The cause of the mysterious illnesses has not been determined, but Ottawa decided Cuba was no longer a safe work environment. 

The May announcement was abrupt, resulting in confusion for families in the midst of applications to bring relatives for a visit or to immigrate. The people in the video are asking Ottawa to consider alternatives to the blanket refusal to process applications in Cuba — and demanding the government finally give them answers.

"It's like they don't care," Amanda Reyes said via Skype from Halifax as she fought back tears. "It's literally heartbreaking."

Reyes and her husband Yoandri Reyes Riverón — who immigrated to Canada two years ago — welcomed a baby boy three weeks ago.

Yoandri Reyes Riverón and Amanda Reyes say they're devastated their newborn son Mateo can't meet his Cuban grandmother. (Skype/CBC News)

Right before Mateo was born, they were finishing up the visitor's visa papers for Riverón's mother, Odalys Riverón Martinez, to come to Canada so she could meet the baby. They were about to send them when the embassy cutbacks were announced.

The single-income family isn't making enough to afford a trip to Cuba, or pay to send Martinez to Mexico to complete her application.

The suspensions mean Martinez won't get to meet her first grandson for almost a year, when the family can visit Cuba. 

"The government is so big on family reunification and I just feel like now when it comes to Cuba that's out the window," Reyes said. 

Similar stories, dozens of families

Each family who contributed to the video has a different story, but they're all in limbo.

Fidel Alejandro Gamboa Traba and Jacqueline Stein married in August and immediately began the application for spousal sponsorship to Canada.

In February, a portion of the application was approved. Since then, it's been "radio silence" from the government, Stein said from Cuba, adding she can't stay for the duration of the processing and has to return to Canada this summer.

"It feels like a stab in the back to Cubans. It's essentially saying 'we don't want you here.'" 

Fidel Alejandro Gamboa Traba and his Canadian wife, Jacqueline Stein, are in Cuba while their spousal sponsorship application is processed, but they can't complete the final steps because of the embassy cutbacks. (YouTube/Supplied)

Beatriz Diaz, the head of the Canadian Studies department at the University of Havana, applied for a temporary visitor permit to attend an academic conference in Canada. 

Then news came about the embassy. Now she'll miss the convention. 

Canadian Nicole Birch-Bayley lived with her boyfriend Sadiel Gómez's parents in Cuba to be closer to him while she completed her PhD research online for the University of Toronto. 

Now married and living in Toronto, the couple wanted to show Gómez's parents the country they call home.

Their visitors' application for his parents was submitted the same day the embassy announcement came, meaning it won't be handled in Cuba.

Birch-Bayley says the decision killed what hope they had, and it's time for the government to "live up to [their] promises" to welcome people to Canada. 

No plans to reopen processing, government says

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said there are no current plans to reopen application processing in Havana.

The embassy issues don't mean immigration or visitor applications are cancelled, but it adds an expensive and time-consuming layer of complexity

Residents in countries without a Canadian office must travel to another country to provide their biometrics or attend immigration interviews. In most cases, it means travelling to Mexico — where a visa is required for Cuban citizens.

Dairon Morejón Pérez, a Cuban student at Queen's University, said it was easier for him to get a student visa two years ago. The embassy situation is a "step back" for Canada and Cuba, he says.

Many of the families are concerned the directive from Canada to travel for processing means poorer families won't be reunited, as the expenses are prohibitive.

Most Cubans make less than $50 Cdn a month, according to their National Office of Statistics. Paying for a plane ticket, accommodations and food in another country is impossible for many.

"We certainly recognize that this decision has created challenges for some people seeking travel documents to come to Canada," a statement from minister Hussen's office said. 

"This decision wasn't taken lightly, but as a government, we have a responsibility to ensure that the health and safety of our employees is protected." 

Solutions and answers

The families agreed it's important to keep the workers safe, but said there are other solutions the government isn't considering. 

They offered several suggestions to the Canadian government. For example, they could install a biometrics machine at another office in Cuba, or make the screening available upon landing in Canada. The tests are used to establish height, weight and other identifying characteristics. 

Another option is to temporarily suspend biometric test requirements — which have been in place less than a year — or provisionally approve applicants to provide some certainty of acceptance before money is spent travelling to places like Mexico.

How is it possible that Canada closes the doors to this country who receives them?- Odalys Riverón Martinez, visa applicant

Despite dozens of emails, calls and queries to various levels of government, none of the people in the video have received answers. 

Martinez says she can't believe that millions of people get to travel for pleasure, but she's denied a chance to meet her grandson.

"How is it possible that Canada closes the doors to this country who receives them?" she said in Spanish.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says the embassy is an ongoing topic with Cuban officials, and it came up at bilateral meetings in Toronto this week. 

"I really want to reiterate that the measures that have been taken in our embassy in Cuba are in no way a political decision," she said Friday, adding officials are currently looking at the "nitty gritty" details of the issue. 

"I have real sympathy for the Canadians and the Cubans who are facing some real difficulties as a result of this situation."

But the families are looking for solutions. 

"People need answers," Reyes said.

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