WASHINGTON — The United States won't meet its commitment to provide at least 20,000 visas for Cubans to migrate from the island this year because the Havana government has placed "unreasonable constraints" on its diplomatic mission there, the State Department said Tuesday.
The surprise admission that Washington would fail for the first time to meet a key obligation under a 1994 migration accord with Havana came after the Cuban Foreign Ministry accused the Bush administration of withholding immigration visas in an attempt to destabilize the island.
The accusation touches a raw nerve, as both sides often have traded allegations that the other uses migration for political ends. The matter has taken renewed importance now, a year after a sick Fidel Castro handed power to his brother Raul, setting the stage for the first leadership transition in nearly half a century.
The Bush administration has made it no secret that it wants Cuba to initiate a transition to a democratic form of government. But the diplomatic squabbling hits ordinary Cubans the hardest.
"People who had their exit interviews at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana a month after me are still waiting in Cuba, and I've been here almost a year," said Lizette Fernandez, a former Cuban dissident who now lives in Hialeah, Fla. "When you call Cuba and ask, 'How's so and so?' people say, 'Ay, chica, he's still waiting for his visa.'
"Not everybody throws themselves to the sea. People want to go legally."
The United States has awarded 10,724 visas in the nine-month period that ended June 30. That's only 54 percent of the 20,000 annual quota agreed to in the 1994 migration accord, according to the Cuban statement published in Tuesday's edition of the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
A U.S. failure to meet its quota would be a "grave and unjustifiable" violation of the agreements, the statement added.
The visa flap appears to be the latest volley in a diplomatic exchange that began last year when the U.S. Interests Section in Havana put up an electronic billboard on the side of the building that broadcast human-rights messages. The sign infuriated Havana, which quickly built a plaza of black flags to block the sign and later cut off the building's water and power.
Now, the U.S. government said the Cubans were putting up obstacles that thwarted the visa process.
The Cuban government has denied visas for State Department employees to work in Cuba and has impeded the hiring of locals to fill 47 job vacancies, the U.S. Interests Section said in a statement. The government also has blocked the U.S. from importing materials and supplies to improve visa facilities.
The migration accords were designed to discourage illegal crossings of the Florida Straits by providing a safe way for Cubans to leave, but Cuba now suggests that the Bush administration is deliberately slowing the process.
The Cuban statement asks whether President Bush's desire for change on the island is behind the delay in granting visas, "even though this provokes a situation of instability that would almost surely also affect the United States."
Presumably, fewer visas could result in more Cubans taking to the sea to reach the United States.
Cuba rejected any attempt to blame Havana for the delay. To the contrary, the statement said, the United States had intensified "hostilities and provocations" to bring down a "legitimate government sovereignly elected by the Cuban people."
The U.S. government has been preparing for a possible wave of illegal migrants from Cuba, with the Coast Guard leading interagency exercises to intercept Cubans at sea and prevent Cuban Americans from picking up rafters. The Department of Defense also is expanding its installations at the Guantanamo U.S. naval base in Cuba to receive thousands more refugees.
(Robles, of The Miami Herald, reported from Miami.)