Cuba

Cuban migrant crisis in Central America escalates

Cubans camp out at the Peñas Blancas border crossing in Costa Rica. Many of the migrants have been there since the weekend, when Nicaragua closed its border to Cubans, amid swelling numbers. Costa Rican authorities estimate there are some 2,000 Cubans at the border and nearby shelters waiting to continue their journey to the United States.
Cubans camp out at the Peñas Blancas border crossing in Costa Rica. Many of the migrants have been there since the weekend, when Nicaragua closed its border to Cubans, amid swelling numbers. Costa Rican authorities estimate there are some 2,000 Cubans at the border and nearby shelters waiting to continue their journey to the United States. jwyss@MiamiHerald.com

As some 2,000 Cubans thwarted by Nicaragua in their journey north to the United States milled around the Costa Rican border Wednesday and tensions simmered between the two Central American nations, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry called them victims of a politicized U.S. immigration policy that gives them priority over all other nationalities who want to come to the United States.

“This policy stimulates irregular emigration from Cuba to the United States and is a violation of the letter and spirit of the migratory agreements in effect [between the United States and Cuba] in which both countries have taken on the obligation of guaranteeing legal, secure and orderly migration,” the Cuban Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

This policy stimulates irregular emigration from Cuba to the United States and is a violation of the letter and spirit of the migratory agreements in effect [between the United States and Cuba] in which both countries have taken on the obligation of guaranteeing legal, secure and orderly migration

Cuban Foreign Ministry

The Cuban government said it was in constant contact with the countries affected by the exodus, trying to find a “rapid and adequate” solution to the brewing crisis that “takes into consideration the well-being of the Cuban citizens.”

Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez has called for an urgent meeting of foreign ministers from Ecuador to Mexico whose territories have become the route north for the Cubans. He proposed a “humanitarian corridor” that would prevent them from falling victim to people smugglers.

“We are concerned about the treatment of Cubans in Costa Rica and are in contact with that nation’s officials to ensure they are being treated in accordance with international agreements,” South Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said. He attributed the situation to mounting desperation in Cuba in the wake of the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba jointly announced last December by President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that it was aware of the situation and was encouraging “all countries to respect the human rights of migrants and to ensure humane treatment of individuals seeking asylum or other forms of protection in accordance with international law and their own national laws.”

But it also noted that if migrants don’t have valid asylum claims or a legal basis to remain in a country, “we recognize that governments have the sovereign right to return them to their home countries. Any and all returns should be carried out safely, and with dignity.”

In recent months, the number of Cubans making their way north from South America to Panama and through Central America before finally arriving at their goal, the Mexican border with the United States, and often ultimately coming to South Florida, has accelerated. On Sunday, Nicaragua, an ally of Cuba’s, closed its border with Costa Rica in an effort to stop them.

More than 45,000 Cubans arrived at U.S. checkpoints along the Mexican border and presented themselves for admission to the United States in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Many Cubans also are risking their lives in the Straits of Florida in an attempt to enter the United States. In the eight months from May through October, the U.S. Coast Guard picked up 1,604 Cubans at sea compared to 2,111 for the full year of fiscal 2014.

La Cruz, a Costa Rican town of about 20,000 that lies 12 miles south of the main border crossing with Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas, has become one of the major reception points for the Cubans. The Red Cross says it´s taking care of about 1,800 in five temporary shelters and that there are at least 200 more Cubans holed up in hotels or who are sleeping outside at the border crossing.

Donations coming in from around the country were helping provide the Cubans with three meals a day and some were also being put up at local churches and schools.

Peñas Blancas​ had the feel of an urban encampment Wednesday. Outside of the Costa Rican immigration check-point, entire families sprawled on sleeping bags on the concrete or hung up clothes to dry from a chain-link fence. Authorities had set up a battery of portable toilets but there was only limited shelter.

Some people said they were refusing to retreat to the relative comfort of the temporary shelters because they wanted to keep up pressure on Nicaragua and the rest of Central America to let them continue their journey to the United States.

Darien Pavia, 32, said he was worried — after more than 1,000 Cubans stormed through the border crossing on Sunday and were forced to retreat by Nicaraguan riot police and the army — that Costa Rica’s northern neighbor would never let them continue their trip to the United States.

“We’re all very worried here,” Pavia​ said. “I don’t think Nicaragua is ever going to let us through.”

​Several said that this fresh wave of migrants is being fueled by growing rumors in Cuba that the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act will be ending in the new year.

In August when the United States had an official flag-raising ceremony at its reopened embassy in Havana, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “We currently have no plans whatsoever to alter the current migration policy, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, and we have no plans to change the wet foot/dry foot policy.”

On Wednesday, the State Department reiterated that position: “The U.S. has no plans to change its immigration policies with regard to Cuba.”

We currently have no plans whatsoever to alter the current migration policy, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, and we have no plans to change the wet foot/dry foot policy

Secretary of State John Kerry during the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana

The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans who arrive in the United States without a visa to have their status adjusted after a year and a day so they can stay in the United States and receive a green card and other benefits. Under the wet foot/dry foot doctrine, Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil are allowed to stay but those who are intercepted at sea are generally returned to Cuba.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry complained that the U.S. migration policies were “incongruous” with the new relationship between the United States and Cuba and could “put up obstacles in the normalization of migratory relations between Cuba and the United States and create problems for other countries.”

“I’d like to highlight that the United States and Cuban governments have begun a process of constructive engagement that is a long-term process. The situation in Cuba will not change overnight,” said a State Department spokesperson.

The Cuban government said the Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet foot/dry foot policy gives Cubans a “differentiated and unique” treatment that allows them immediate and automatic entry into the United States without any consideration of whether they arrived in U.S. territory legally.

The Cuban government said that its citizens who have left Cuba were legally headed for various Latin American countries, but in their quest to reach the United States, they have “fallen victim to people traffickers and delinquent bands that have unscrupulously enriched themselves by controlling their passage through South America, Central America and Mexico.”

The migratory crisis in Central America could get worse before it gets better. The Red Cross says that some 200 to 300 more Cubans are arriving in Costa Rica every day.

Wyss reported from Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Whitefield reported from Miami.

  Comments