The Costa Rican government has agreed to issue humanitarian visas to more than 1,000 undocumented Cubans detained in the Central American country, but will keep its borders closed to other Cuban migrants trying to move north toward the United States.
The government also emphasized Friday that it will try to deport to Panama any Cubans newly detained in Costa Rica without visas, as part of its decision — announced Wednesday — to reverse a long-standing policy of allowing the Cubans to continue moving north to neighboring Nicaragua.
The issue turned worse Friday morning when a protest by about 600 of the more than 1,000 Cubans detained in Paso Canoas, on the Costa Rican border with Panama, blocked the Inter-American highway, the region's main land transportation route, at least until late in the afternoon.
Two undocumented Cubans, Esdrey Roura and Mario José Pérez, meanwhile stripped down to their underwear and declared hunger strikes outside the main Migration Directorate office in San José to demand they be allowed to continue on their journey to the north.
“We will not dress and we will not eat again until we are turned over the U.S. authorities. That is our demand. We have been detained in this country for almost 15 days, for nothing. They say that this is a small country that has no regulations. We're not interested in the country or its regulations,” said Roura. “We are in transit and we have one goal, which is to reach the United States. Nothing less than that.”
Perez added: “We've had enough. They have been bouncing us this way and that way. We don't want to stay here. Our interest is reaching the United States, just that.”
Before Wednesday, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico allowed Cubans without visas to enter their territory under a promise to seek refugee status, but then freed them and gave them several days to start the refugee paperwork — time enough to continue their journeys toward Mexico and the United States.
But after arresting more than a dozen Costa Rican members of a Cuban-smuggling ring on Tuesday, the Costa Rican government announced it would close its borders to arriving Cubans and return to Panama any migrants detained in their territory. Panama has refused to take them back.
The decision left more than 1,000 island citizens stranded in Paso Canoas – another 400 arrived since — and 200 to 300 in Peñas Blancas, on the northern border with Nicaragua. Authorities have said that the migrants on the northern border will be “deported” to Nicaragua after they finish some paperwork.
The Cuban migrants usually leave the island through Ecuador, which does not require them to obtain prior entry visas, then travel northward, most often with people smugglers through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. The trip usually takes six to eight weeks and is paid for with money transfers along the way from relatives and friends in the United States.
Kattia Rodríguez, head of the Costa Rican Migration Directorate, has said that the current problems involve Cubans stranded when authorities arrested their smugglers, who charge from $7,500 to $15,000 to move them along the northern-bound pipeline.
Nearly 12,200 undocumented Cubans arrived in Costa Rica in just the first nine months of this year, compared to 5,114 in 2014 and 2,549 in 2013 — the year when the Cuban government lifted most of its tight controls on citizens who want to travel abroad.