On “Calle Ocho” in the La Florida neighborhood, a few dozen Cubans mill around, downing tar-thick cortadito coffee and explaining to curious locals how to cook malanga.
But the snow-capped volcano peeking through the clouds dispels notions that this scene is unfolding in South Florida or the Caribbean.
When Cuba began relaxing travel restrictions as part of larger economic reforms, it found an unlikely partner in this small Andean nation. Ecuador is the only country in South and Central America that doesn’t require Cubans to get a visa or special permission to visit. That has made it a hotbed for those seeking a way off the island.
From 2009-2013, almost 120,000 Cubans came to Ecuador, according to the latest publicly available statistics. And almost 20,000 were expected this year.
For many, this small Andean nation is a springboard to the United States. For others it’s a way to take U.S. dollars — Ecuador’s national currency — back to the island. And for some, this country in northwestern South America has become home.
At a Cuban bakery in the La Florida neighborhood of northern Quito, a man who identified himself as Juan Perez said this was the second time he had traveled to Ecuador this year to work at a disco and a construction site. In a good month, he can make between $500 and $700.
His goal, he said, is to make as much money as possible during his 90-day tourist permit, and return home.
“This is the only country that we can travel to freely now,” he said, noting that even vocal Cuba allies like Venezuela and Nicaragua require visas. “Ecuador is an escape valve for us.”
There are other options. Haiti, Grenada and St. Vincent, for example, also issue tourist permits to Cubans, but they don’t offer Ecuador’s job opportunities or access to the rest of the continent.
Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the Cuban reforms, which were first broached almost five years ago, are being fueled in part by the island’s youth looking for options.
“Younger people want a more dynamic economy and more opportunities for self-realization in the 21st century,” he said. “I think one of the main drivers of the economic reforms is precisely that — the frustration of young people, including the children and grandchildren of the political elite. The leaders know their offspring are leaving the island and it’s a cause for concern.”
The Cuban rush here began in earnest in 2008 when Ecuador’s socialist President Rafael Correa reformed the constitution. Among the changes, the document promotes the “principal of universal citizenship,” and “free movement of all inhabitants of the planet.”
What that meant in practice is that Ecuador dropped visa requirements for all nationalities, sparking an influx of immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean who saw Ecuador as a springboard to the rest of the continent. (The country has since reinstated visas for 10 nationalities.)
In 2008, before the constitutional change, Cubans weren’t among the top 15 nationalities that traveled to the country so they didn’t register in national figures. The year after the change, however, Cubans leapfrogged to sixth place behind the United States, Colombia, Peru, Spain and Venezuela. That year alone, some 27,065 Cubans entered Ecuador.
They haven’t always received red-carpet treatment. In January 2013, at the same time that Cuba was relaxing its travel rules, Ecuador began requiring visitors from the island to have letters of invitation.
By many accounts, those letters became a prized commodity and people paid thousands of dollars for them. In April, perhaps in response to the booming underground industry, the requirement was dropped.
Cyndy Corcho, 29, was among the initial wave of Cuban immigrants. She arrived in the country four years ago, about six months after her parents.
“I was amazed by all the things they had here,” said Corcho, who was a preschool teacher on the island. “All the food, all the fruit, all the flowers — we simply didn’t have those things.”
Corcho said she knew little about the country before arriving, except for its reputation.
“This was a bridge,” she said. “This was our only option out.”
Once Cubans arrive here, however, they face a race against time. When Corcho made the trip, she lost her residency rights in Cuba — including housing and food rations — after being absent 12 months. (Havana has since doubled the amount of time residents are allowed to be away without losing benefits.)
Those unable to gain legal residency in Ecuador during that time can find themselves adrift.
“If you pass that period and don’t become legal, it’s like you don’t exist anywhere, not here and not there,” Corcho said.
It didn’t come to that for her. She found an Ecuadorean partner and became a legal citizen. The couple now runs a restaurant on the outskirts of Quito.
But many aren’t so fortunate. Corcho’s parents, for example, spent three years in Ecuador trying to become legal citizens but finally gave up. They ultimately took the treacherous overland route, working their way through Colombia and Central America before entering the United States. Homeland Security reported that almost 134,000 Cubans have either traveled to or sought asylum in the U.S. since 2009.
Even while Ecuador has made it easier for Cubans to visit, it’s also making it harder for them to stay, immigration lawyers said. The government has cracked down on marriages of convenience and tightened asylum requirements.
Cubans are second only to neighboring Colombians in seeking asylum in Ecuador. In 2008, the country granted 197 Cubans refugee status. In 2013, however, it granted a single asylum request from Cuba.
“The country is closing down the avenues for asylum seekers,” said a human rights attorney who did not wish to be named because she is currently trying to help Cuban clients win refugee status. “We are increasingly seeing barriers.”
The legal limbo that many find themselves in casts a pall over the community. Even in the La Florida neighborhood, where Cuban restaurants, shops and hair salons proudly boast their heritage, many are reluctant to talk.
“We’re guests here, we don’t want problems,” a group of men said as they drank coffee outside of a shop called La Casa de la Malanga.
The Cuban arrival has also created something of a backlash.
Outside the Cuban embassy, vandals have spray painted “Go back to your island” along with other unprintable insults. And many immigrants complain about being denied jobs and housing when their accents give them away.
Alexandre Graña, 42, and Luis Lazaro, 44, arrived in Ecuador in 2012. As a homosexual couple in Cuba, they said their life had become untenable. They said authorities considered them dissidents for their gay-rights activism and that they were repeatedly jailed. They also said they were under constant threat of having their HIV medication withheld as punishment.
During one of their final detentions, a policeman — after threatening to “disappear” them — also planted the seed of emigration.
Graña recalls that the officer told them, “With all the professionals who have left for Ecuador, with all of the people who are worth something who have left, why don’t you two AIDS-riddled f*** go to Ecuador?”
At the time, Ecuador still required a letter of invitation and the men said they gave their home and all its contents as payment to an intermediary who helped procure the document.
Here, they’ve been able to get treatment and medication, and Graña has found work as a hair-dresser. But they’ve had their asylum petition rejected three times and live under the constant threat of being deported to Cuba.
The men are now applying for asylum in the United States but said they’ve run out of options.
While friends have made the trek overland through Central America to the United States, they said it costs about $9,000 and is simply too risky: There’s a real threat of assault, deportation and even death along the route.
Asked what they might do if the U.S. rejects their petition, Graña said their options were stark.
“My Plan B is to kill myself,” he said. “I’m not going back to Cuba.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.
The number of travelers to Ecuador has declined in recent years while the number to the U.S. has risen.
To the U.S.*
*Non immigrant and refugee/asylum seekers.
Source: Instituto Nacional de Estadisticas, Homeland Security