Page last updated at 00:06 GMT, Friday, 11 April 2008 01:06 UK

US gives Cubans fast track visas

Cubans in Little Havana, Miami, August 2006
US officials in Havana say as many as 40,000 Cubans could be eligible

The United States has begun issuing fast track visas to Cubans who have relatives living in America.

The first three sets of travel permits were issued by the US Interests Section in Havana on Thursday.

The Cuban Family Reunification Programme is partly aimed at discouraging illegal immigrants.

US officials say there has been a 20% increase this year in the number of Cubans trying to cross the Straits of Florida by boat.

They said the figures showed Cubans had little faith that life would improve under Raul Castro, who officially succeeded his brother Fidel as Cuba's leader in February.

Havana accuses the US of encouraging Cubans to risk their lives trying to emigrate by quickly granting residence to those who successfully make the crossing.

Thousands of people who left Cuba over the years still have wives, husbands, and children left behind.

No home visits

Current visa applications can take between three and seven years.

The new scheme is aimed at processing claims in just a matter of months.

Two families with young children were amongst the first to receive travel permits to join their relatives in the US, the BBC's Michael Voss reports from Havana.

According to US consular officials in Havana, as many as 40,000 Cubans could be eligible under the scheme, which was first announced late last year.

There is a longstanding agreement between the US and Cuba to allow 20,000 people to emigrate legally each year.

Those granted visas under the new family reunification scheme will be part of rather than in addition to this number.

So far though there are no plans by the Bush administration to lift the restrictions it imposed on family visits home by Cuban Americans.

At present they are only allowed to return to Cuba once every three years.

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