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Slowly but surely, help arrives for U.S.-bound Cuban migrants

A Cuban migrant holds a sign that reads in Spanish "Help us Obama" during a protest at the Costa Rican border with Nicaragua. File, Nov. 2015 (Credit: AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

While U.S. politicians argue over immigration policies for Syrian refugees and illegal migrants from Central America, the southern U.S. border braces for a new wave of newcomers – 8,000 of them – from Cuba.

Cuban migrants attempting to reach the United States have been stranded in Central America since Nicaragua closed its borders to them on Nov. 14. According to the New York Times, the first group of migrants will board a flight this week out of Costa Rica, where they have camped out at the Nicaraguan border in often undesirable conditions, to El Salvador, from where they will continue north by bus.

Many of these migrants’ journeys began when Cuba eased travel restrictions, allowing many in the island nation to travel for the first time in decades, according to CNN. The eagerness to leave Cuba accelerated after U.S.-Cuban relations began to thaw and rumors circulated that the U.S. would bring an end to a longstanding policy that allows Cubans who reach the United States on foot to apply for residency.

Although there is currently no evidence to say Congress will take any action on the Act in the near future, many Cubans are not willing to risk missing their window of opportunity to migrate, and have already sold their homes and belongings to travel through Central America in a desperate effort to reach the U.S. border.

Most migrants began the journey north by flying into Ecuador which, according to the New York Times, does not require a travel visa for Cuban citizens. From there, the wave of migrants must travel through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. This roundabout path allows Cubans to bypass the treacherous journey through the Florida Straits where, according to the NY Times, a U.S. policy known as “wet foot, dry foot” ensures that all migrants attempting to reach Florida by boat will be turned back if caught by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The mass migration of Cubans escalated into a crisis in November, when Nicaragua closed its border to Cubans on grounds of risk to its security and sovereignty, sent police and soldiers to detain them, and shipped them in buses back to Costa Rica. The action left over 8,000 Cubans stranded at the border with Nicaragua in Costa Rica.

The president of Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solís criticized Nicaragua’s decision in a message posted Wednesday on YouTube, according to CNN:

“It has certainly been regrettable that the government of Nicaragua, in a move that is still incomprehensible to me, has denied free transit through its territory. This attitude, in my opinion, harms the spirit of integration and fraternity of Central America. It also constitutes for me a very sad situation in a Central America that I believed was more united.”

Other neighboring countries have also shown hesitancy to help with the crisis; Belize recently refused to fly the stranded Cubans to Belmopán so they could continue their journey, according to PanAm Post, and Ecuador reimposed its visa requirement for Cubans in December to stem the flow of migrants through its territory.

For its own part, Costa Rica has awarded 4,874 temporary visas and spent more than CR $120 million (U.S. $22,000) to set up temporary housing for Cubans seeking to reach the United States by land.

But Costa Rica is running out of resources to care for these migrants. In an effort to help move the migrants along their journey, Costa Rican authorities have been negotiating with the Belizean government to allow the passage of at least 5,000 Cubans. They are also in talks with Guatemala, according to PanAm Post, which has said it is willing to receive the migrants and offer them a temporary 15 day visa on two conditions: that Mexico formally commits to accepting the migrants, and that someone else pays for the operation.

Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Carlos Raúl Morales has explained that his government is open to working on solutions, but it needs guarantees. He added that Guatemala’s priorities lie in preventing more problems within their own borders.

“I have [a large]enough irregular migrant population waiting at the border, [and]to add 4,000 or 5,000 more people … it would be irresponsible, and I would be violating Guatemalan law,” he said.

On Dec. 9, Solís addressed the Cuban migrants on national television. He expressed disappointment with Guatemala and Belize’s hesitancy to lend the necessary support to help them reach their destination, and promised Cubans he would not deport them unless they wanted to return to the island. He then asked Cubans who are currently trying to reach Costa Rica to not continue their journey until a solution is reached.

Currently, the proposed solution is to fly migrants out of Costa Rica and into El Salvador, from where they will take a bus through Guatemala and into southern Mexico. The first flight, scheduled to take a group of 180 Cubans, leaves today.

According to Jamaica Observer, Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez said further flights from Costa Rica will depend on the success of this upcoming flight.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at