Currently, the number of consular personnel authorized at both the U.S. and Cuban Interests Sections is 50 people and there is strict reciprocity between the two countries, which maintain Interest Sections instead of embassies because they don’t have diplomatic relations.
“I think there will be a large number of Cubans who will want to leave,” said Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University and national security advisor for Latin America during the Carter administration. The majority, he said, will probably opt for a third country that doesn’t require Cubans to obtain an entry visa or that is within striking distance of U.S. borders.
Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who reach U.S. soil can be paroled into the United States and become permanent residents a year later. Making the whole scenario even more convoluted: under Cuba’s migration reform, Cubans will be allowed to stay outside the island for up to two years — rather than the current 11 months — without losing their rights as residents, meaning their could get green cards and work in the United States and still freely return to Cuba at the end of 24 months if they choose.
In this hemisphere, Haiti, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and a handful of small islands such as St Lucia and Grenada don’t require entry visas for Cubans. Maximum stays range from a low of 28 days in Barbados to as long as 90 days in Ecuador and Haiti.
“Cuban citizens like many other foreigners can enter Ecuador without a visa for tourism,’’ said Nathalie Cely Suárez, Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States
Some Cubans, she said, have tried to use “irregular mechanisms,’’ such as fake marriages, to remain in Ecuador, which has prompted stricter controls by Ecuadorian authorities.
Because of the difficulty in reaching the United States, the ambassador said she didn’t think concerns about Cubans using Ecuador as a launching pad to reach the U.S. are “substantive.’’ But already there are reports of smugglers taking Cubans who enter Ecuador across Colombia to the rugged Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama and then on up to the Mexican border.
Mexico requires entry visas for Cubans but it has been a favorite jumping off point for Cubans who can present themselves at the border and request to be paroled into the United States under the adjustment act, a 1966 law that was designed to normalize the status of thousands of Cubans who fled to the United States after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Some Cubans may make the assumption that once they reach a non-visa country, they can then apply for a U.S. entry visa but it might not help their chances. “Although visa applicants may apply at any U.S. consular office abroad, it may be more difficult to qualify for the visa outside the country of permanent residence,’’ said Ostick of the State Department.
Analysts say it’s hard to know whether the influx of Cubans through third countries will be a trickle or a torrent or whether it will prompt smugglers to create new networks to bring more Cubans to U.S. shores but there appear to be plenty of legal loopholes.
The U.S. Coast Guard says it will continue to maintain a “robust maritime presence in the Caribbean” but declined to say whether it planned to beef up efforts.