The Obama administration calibrated diplomatic moves, courted press relations — and attended to such details as the emotional timbre of its flag-raising ceremony in Havana.
But the administration and rapprochement allies grossly underestimated a major factor in the speed-dial pursuit of diplomatic relations with the island: the Cuban people’s desire to emigrate to the United States — and the Castro regime’s historical willingness, in times of pressure, to open a door for them to flee.
One year after President Barack Obama’s historic shift in Cuba policy, the lack of vision — and inertia — on the well-charted subject of massive flight from Cuba is shaping up to be one of the strategy’s failures.
The issue of the thousands of Cubans stranded at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border and in Panama clamoring to be allowed to continue on their trek to the United States is begging to be addressed.
A one-way, Havana-Quito plane ticket, a cellphone, and an underground road map charted by those who have made the crossing turned a steady trickle since 2013 into a flood post-rapprochement.
The number of Cubans packed into holding facilities where they sleep on the floor or on foam pads is growing daily — 4,000-plus in Costa Rica, taxing the small, peaceful nation’s limited resources. And more than a thousand wait in Panama as of this writing.
The administration doesn’t want to admit it, but it’s facing another immigration crisis.
Nicaragua has closed its border; Belize has refused passage, too. The Cubans sold their belongings and bought one-day tickets. They can’t or don’t want to go back to Cuba and they can’t continue forward. As their numbers grow and days pass without resolution or a plan, tempers flare, and children and pregnant women need medical attention.
“Tell us the truth. Tell us that we’re going to be here three years or that we’re being hanged, but tell us the truth,” one man clamored in a television report.
Far from giving Cubans hope that the spoils of engagement would better their lives, Obama’s announcement and the restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana served to accelerate the pace of the flight to Miami before the way out closed again.
To hear the mayor of Miami say “we’re not prepared” for another exodus is to be thrust back to the days of the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 1994 balsero crisis when similar pronouncements were issued hoping to get Washington’s attention.
If history is an indicator, the Obama administration will be forced to deal with the crisis — and with all other doors closed, it will have to process and airlift the Cubans as President Clinton did with the Guantánamo tent-city refugees.
The American government anticipated that Cuba would push back on human rights issues — repress more, and that the Cuban government has done, and openly. But unbelievably, the administration didn’t envision that another generation, this one basking in the glow of the stars and stripes — wearing it on their T-shirts on the way out — would choose to escape.
Ready or not, Miami, city of arrivals, will most likely once again resettle this transplanted Cuba. The only difference is that this time it will be amid studiously calibrated silence from Cuban Americans and the prayers of the faithful at the Shrine to Our Lady of Charity.