Americas

Thousands of Cuban migrants stuck at Nicaraguan border in limbo amid political impasse

Some 2,000 Cuban migrants on their way to the United States are stranded in Central America after Nicaragua barred them from entering from Costa Rica. The crisis is shining a light on the growing number of Cubans heading overland to try to reach the United States.
Some 2,000 Cuban migrants on their way to the United States are stranded in Central America after Nicaragua barred them from entering from Costa Rica. The crisis is shining a light on the growing number of Cubans heading overland to try to reach the United States. Miami Herald staff

The slow-moving river of Cuban migrants heading to the United States had already braved corrupt cops, thieving coyotes, a perilous boat trip and a trek through Central American jungles.

But the obstacle that ended their journey in this small agricultural town, just a few miles from the border with Nicaragua, is more vexing: politics.

For nearly a week, almost 2,000 Cubans have been stranded along the Costa Rica-Nicaragua frontier after the government in Managua balked at their sheer numbers and denied them passage. On Sunday, as an estimated 1,600 frustrated Cubans broke through the border gate on their way north, they were repelled by riot police, tear gas and the national army.

That has left entire families stranded in this rural swath of Costa Rica, wondering how and when they’ll be able to continue their journey.

Roberto Carlos Pizarro, a 24-year-old computer scientist on his way to Houston, was among the group that tried to push its way into Nicaragua over the weekend. As he and his cousin prepared to spend another night sleeping on a concrete slab outside Costa Rica’s immigration checkpoint, he feared the crowds might have gone too far.

“We invaded Nicaragua by force, yes, but we were desperate,” he explained. “If Nicaragua is like Cuba, I don’t think they will forgive us for that. I don’t think they will ever let us across.”

THE LONG WAY NORTH

The overland journey from Cuba to the United States is seen as safer than braving the Florida Straits in a raft. But it’s still long and perilous, covering eight nations and 4,800 miles. Most people said they had sold homes or gone deep into debt to scrounge up the $3,000-$7,000 dollars for the trip.

For many, it begins with a flight from Havana to Ecuador, one of the few countries that doesn’t require Cubans to have visas. From there, they travel overland through Colombia to the Atlantic port of Turbo, where they’re whisked across the Gulf of Urabá to Panama to continue the long slog up through Central America.

In the year ending Sept. 20, more than 45,000 Cubans arrived at U.S. checkpoints along the Mexican border.

In the year ending Sept. 20, more than 45,000 Cubans arrived at U.S. checkpoints along the Mexican border.

Almost all the migrants complained about being shaken down and menaced by the police in Colombia or being robbed by their guides, or coyotes, in Panama. But Nicaragua had the reputation for being the easy leg of the journey. Until recently, Cubans said they could present themselves to Nicaraguan immigration officials, pay a fine of about $80, and be bussed by authorities to the northern border with Honduras.

Like a glitch in a factory line, however, migrants and officials said the route began breaking down days earlier at the Panama-Costa Rica border. In Paso Canoas, in southern Costa Rica, Cuban migrants would usually spend two or three days as they were processed by immigration. But this month there were delays, and as days turned into weeks for some, Cubans continued streaming into the town.

“There were more and more of us coming in and we decided to go on strike,” recalls Darien Pavía, a 32-year-old bartender from Havana. When they were finally let go, on Saturday, they arrived en masse at Nicaragua’s southern border.

“Everybody was so anxious that we just pushed through and that’s where we had the clash with tear gas and all the violence,” he said.

Nicaragua has accused Costa Rica of provoking a humanitarian crisis by “launching” the Cubans at them without warning and said it was only trying to safeguard its frontier.

Part of the crowd’s desperation comes from growing rumors that the Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants legal status and other benefits to Cuban political asylum seekers in the United States, might be ending.

The rumor mill in Cuba is in high gear with reports that the pact will be suspended in December amid the Washington-Havana rapprochement and growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, said Jorge Luis Vento, who had tried to escape the island as a rafter in the 1990s. U.S. officials have said they have no plans to change U.S. policy for Cuban migrants.

While some in the U.S. have questioned the preferential treatment for Cubans, Vento denied suggestions that many islanders are escaping for economic, rather than political, reasons.

“Somebody who sells their entire life to go country by country by country to get to the United States — the only reason you would do that is because you can’t take it any more,” he said.

Somebody who sells their entire life to go country by country by country to get to the United States — the only reason you would do that is because you can’t take it any more.

Jorge Luis Vento, Cuban migrant

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry has blamed the U.S. policy for fueling the crisis, saying it “stimulates irregular emigration from Cuba to the United States.”

Carlos Matías Gonzaga is the mayor of La Cruz, a usually sleepy agricultural town of about 20,000. With some 160-200 Cubans arriving each day, Gonzaga jokes about the changing demographics.

“I like to tell people that we already have a Little Havana and that pretty soon we’ll also have a Little Camaguey,” he said.

The national government and aid organizations have helped keep the migratory wave from becoming a burden, he said. And at least eight shelters have been established and a local church has been coordinating efforts to feed the Cubans three times a day.

But Gonzaga said it’s far from a local problem.

“I am asking the international community — not to help Costa Rica, but to help our Cuban brothers whose aspirations are liberty and a better life,” he said. “Everybody needs to look into their heart and do what they can to help them reach their destination — whether they make it there or not.”

For many, the current crisis is rich in historical ironies. Some of those stranded pointed out that after Nicaragua’s Cuba-inspired 1979 revolution, Havana sent thousands of health workers and teachers to the Central American nation.

“We taught them how to read and write,” groused one migrant, “and now this is how they’re repaying us?”

Carlos Herrera, the national chief of disaster planning for Costa Rica’s Red Cross, said the only similar humanitarian crisis in the region was in the 1970s, when Nicaraguans flowed into Costa Rica during the civil war.

“But this time there is no conflict,” he said. “They’re creating the problem by not letting them pass.”

Cuba and Nicaragua remain staunch allies and some wondered if President Daniel Ortega was doing Raúl Castro a backhanded favor.

“For Cuba, [migrants] are against the system — we’re traitors to the country,” said Luís Aldama, a 60-year-old hospital administrator trying to make it to Tucson, Arizona.

Ortega “closed the border to not look bad for the Castros,” he speculated. “This is pure politics.”

POLITICAL SOLUTION?

It’s far from clear how the crisis will end. Foreign ministers from Ecuador to Mexico are expected to meet in El Salvador on Tuesday to try to resolve the humanitarian issue.

Neighboring countries have reacted in a “positive and supportive way” and understand that it’s an issue “that needs to be dealt with by the entire region,” Costa Rica Foreign Minister Manuel González said in a statement Thursday.

Also Thursday, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, wrote to President Barack Obama asking about White House plans — if any — to manage the Cuban influx and coordinate with Mexican and Central American authorities.

“It is now clear that many Cubans are responding to the idea of a normal relationship between their oppressors and the United States with fear and desperation, leading many of them to risk their safety and their lives to escape the prison that is Castro’s Cuba,” he wrote. “ I am concerned about what that means for my community in South Florida.”

Even so, some worry that there are now so many Cubans congregated at the border that it will cause a domino effect: If they get through Nicaragua, will Honduras, Guatemala or Mexico be prepared to take on thousands of them arriving in unison?

Yolanda Romero Marquez, a 65-year-old with diabetes and high blood pressure, was on her way to Indiana to join her sons and grandchildren and had spent four days camped out at the border crossing — refusing to go a few miles back to the relative comfort of the shelters.

As she sprawled amid cardboard and foam mattresses, she said her presence here — at the border — was important.

“If we leave here and this becomes calm, they’ll forget about us,” she said. “People have to know that we’re here and that we have to get through.”

Miami Herald Political Correspondent Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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