Roxana Acanda, a Cuban who has lived in Ecuador since 2013, is about to start the long trek from Quito to the United States.
Although she does not know exactly when she will leave for Panama — where about 3,500 undocumented Cubans are stranded because neighboring Costa Rica closed its borders to them — the 35-year-old Acanda, a college graduate in social studies from Sancti Spíritus, knows her departure is imminent.
Ecuador is suffering through an economic crisis, she says, and Cubans are feeling the rejection by Ecuadorans who complain that migrants are taking their jobs.
“The economic crisis has generated xenophobia against the Cubans,” Acanda said, adding that she has been unemployed for nearly one year.
Although she was not thinking of migrating to the United States when she first arrived in Ecuador, she said her savings are dwindling and she's desperate. But the trek to the United States is expensive for those without required visas, and she's afraid of the Colombia leg of the journey, which includes a walk through parts of the Darién Gap, a swath of undeveloped swampland and forest dominated by FARC guerrillas.
Like Acanda, thousands of Cubans in Ecuador are ready to leave, according to Rolando Gallardo, president of the Cuban National Alliance in Ecuador (ANCE), a group that aims to represent the Cuban community in the Andean country.The organization recently carried out a census that registered 3,105 Cubans living throughout the country. But the 30-year-old Gallardo, a Havana native with a college degree in history, believes there are many more Cubans in Ecuador, perhaps twice as many.
Among those registered “there's everything,” Gallardo said. Only about half are legal residents of Ecuador. Some are in the country a few days, just long enough to arrange their trips to the United States. Others arrive without money, but with the goal of working to save enough to pay for their trip north. A few, like he and his wife, have settled in Ecuador, validated their college degrees and have no intention of leaving.
But 94 percent of the Cubans registered in the census said they want to leave.
Speaking for those Cubans, ANCE has asked the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the governments of Ecuador and Mexico to allow Cubans to fly directly to Mexico, “taking into consideration that the great majority of Cubans who arrived in Central America in recent months came from Ecuador, and that hundreds of Cubans are still continuing to start on the dangerous trip across borders.”
Undocumented Cubans who arrive in Mexico can then cross the land border into the United States. Most are allowed to remain in the U.S. under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, and after one year and one day they can obtain permanent residency status under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
The call for an airlift is under the premise that it would put an end the dangerous trek through Central America and protect the lives of children and families.
“We ask for a secure route for those who want to emigrate and reach the United States, to protect the lives of Cuban families,” said an ANCE statement. “Only a safe route for the Cubans who want to migrate from Ecuador to the borders of the United States can put an end to the continuous migration crisis in Central America.”
Between November and March, more than 9,500 undocumented Cuban migrants were stranded or detained in Costa Rica and Panama after Costa Rica cracked down on people smugglers and Nicaraguan decided to close its borders to Cubans. A regional agreement between nations resulted in airlifts of the Cuban migrants to El Salvador and Mexico so they could continue their trek to the U.S. border.
Acanda said many Cubans in Ecuador are afraid that the new migration crisis, sparked by the thousands of Cubans currently stranded in Panama, will lead Colombia to close its border with Ecuador and thereby spark a crisis inside Ecuador.
“If it weren't for the Cuban community that we have here in Ecuador, the Cubans would be sleeping in parks, or the government would have to establish shelters for them,” said Acanda. “There isn't a migration crisis in Ecuador because the Cubans are not out in public areas. We have a community of Cubans here who help each other.”
Acanda said she currently has two Cuban guests in her own house, who arrived recently in Ecuador.
Cubans in Ecuador are continuing to leave
Acanda added that Cubans are nevertheless continuing to leave Ecuador. Some friends left on the weekend for Colombia and through the feared Darién Gap, where migrants run the risks of guerrillas, the brutal climate and wild animals.
A meeting of foreign ministers on Tuesday in Costa Rica to discuss the current migrant crisis ended without progress, sparking a protest Wednesday in which more than 1,000 of the stranded Cubans forced their way into Costa Rica and blocked the road.
Since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington, the number of undocumented Cubans arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico has risen to levels unseen since the “Rafter Crisis” in 1994. That crisis saw more than 35,000 Cubans flee the island aboard mostly home-made boats.
The spike appears to have been sparked largely by fears that the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations will lead to the elimination of the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Cuba and several of the Central American countries affected by the waves of Cuban migrants have blamed the Cuban Adjustment Act as an incentive to undocumented migration. Gallardo said Cuba's own policies are driving the exodus, but added that he does not expect those to change.
Gallardo said that, in the meantime, he supports Ecuador's decision to start requiring Cubans who want to fly to Ecuador to first obtain entry visas. Until Dec. 1, Cubans did not need visas to fly from the island to Ecuador.
“It's sad,” said Gallardo, “but the issue of families with children stranded on borders must be resolved in some way, and the issue starts in Ecuador.”
If Central American governments “continue to close their borders, the only thing they are doing is enriching the coyotes (people smugglers) because the Cubans will continue moving from Ecuador to the United States,” he added.