US policy towards Cuba migrants to remain unchanged

Washington has no immediate plans to change how it grants travel visas to Cubans, despite recent reforms by Havana relaxing decades-old travel restrictions, the top US official here said in an interview published on Monday.

In a rare interview with the state-run Granma newspaper, Timothy Roche, head of the US Interests Section in Havana said the United States "welcomes" recent reform put in place by Havana which had made it easier for Cubans to travel outside the country.

But Roche said the United States views the reforms as just a first of many steps needed to help improve bilateral relations.

"From the United States' perspective, nothing has changed with respect to migration policy, and the requirements to obtain a temporary visa or a non-immigrant visa are the same," said Roche, in comments appearing in Spanish in Granma.

In the interview, the first here in many years by an American Interests Section head, Roche added that the United States is interested in "promoting legal visits and legal, orderly and safe immigration," Granma reported.

Roche said that at present, the waiting time to obtain an interview for an immigrant visa at the US Interests Section is about 18 months.

Beginning in January, Cubans for the first time in decades were granted the right to travel without official permission, although some professionals, sports stars, technicians, and Communist party officials still face travel curbs because they are deemed by the government to be "essential."

The reviled exit visas have kept most people in this country from ever having the opportunity to travel abroad.

Now some of its best know dissidents, including blogger Yoani Sanchez and Berta Soler, founder of the Ladies in White human rights group, have been granted permission to travel overseas, with Soler due to fly out of the country on Monday.

The travel restrictions had drawn sharp criticism from rights groups which said that the policy denied Cubans' basic rights to freedom of movement.

Havana's move was seen by some as putting pressure on Washington to allow more Cubans to enter the country legally -- or face a potentially risky illegal flow of refugees from the cash-strapped Communist-ruled Caribbean island located just 90 miles (145 kilometers) off the coast of Florida.

So far that feared exodus has not materialized, although Cuba continues to hold Washington responsible for a "brain drain" of its best-trained citizens to US shores.

That is because, separate from requests for US immigration visas, the United States gives any Cuban who reaches US soil -- by boat, land or air -- immediate residency and working rights, something it does not do for citizens of any other country.

Despite travel restrictions in place since the 1960s, Cubans have emigrated illegally in droves, often using rickety boats to embark on dangerous sea voyages to nearby Florida.

There are currently about 1.5 million Cuban-Americans residing in the United States.

The relaxation of Cuba's travel restrictions were the latest in a series of reforms by President Raul Castro, who took the helm from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2006.