Despite talks, U.S.-Cuba migration impasse continues

Cubans interrupt traffic in a lie-down protest on Havana’s Fifth Avenue near Ecuador's embassy to express discontent with a new rule that requires Cubans to e a visa to visit the South American country, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015.
Cubans interrupt traffic in a lie-down protest on Havana’s Fifth Avenue near Ecuador's embassy to express discontent with a new rule that requires Cubans to e a visa to visit the South American country, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. AP

While thousands of Cubans thwarted in their journey to the United States remained stuck in Central America, the United States and Cuba met in Washington on Monday for regularly scheduled migration talks.

Going into the biannual talks, Cuba made it clear that it thought U.S. policies were acting as a stimulus for Cubans who travel to other Latin American countries and then make their way north to the Mexican border with the United States where they ask to be admitted under the Cuban Adjustment Act. The Cubans said such policies encourage illegal migration and violate the spirit and letter of 1996 migration accords signed by the two countries.

The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans — even those who arrive without visas — to be admitted to the United States and become permanent residents a year and a day after their arrival.

Alex Lee, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry director general for the United States, led their respective delegations.

During the talks, Cuban delegates expressed “profound concern over the continued politicization of the migration issue.” The Cuban side also took issue with a parole program for Cuban medical professionals that it called a “reprehensible practice” that encourages Cubans to abandon their posts in third countries and come to the United States and the wet foot/dry foot policy that allows Cubans who reach U.S. territory to enter the country — regardless of whether they came with a visa or were brought in by people smugglers.

As part of the 1996 migration accord, the United States “committed to discontinue the practice of admitting all Cuban migrants arriving in that territory through irregular ways in order to ensure a legal, safe and orderly migration between both countries,” the Cuban delegation said in a statement.

Although the Cubans said the round was held in a “respectful and professional atmosphere,” it appeared that the two sides remained apart on the root cause of the Central American migration crisis.

The Cuban delegation said the U.S. delegation “indicated that its government does not have the intention to introduce changes in the migration policy applied to Cuban citizens.”

There was no immediate response from the U.S., but a State Department spokesperson said earlier in the day that the United States planned to propose how both sides could contribute to “combating smuggling organizations that take advantage of Cuban migrants.”

With a normalization process between the United States and Cuba now underway, there are fears on the part of potential migrants that the U.S. might change its policies. Since the new U.S.-Cuba relationship was announced last December, there has been an increase in Cubans trying to reach the United States.

As many as 3,000 Cubans are stranded at the Costa Rican border. Nicaragua, a long-time ally of Cuba, blocked their passage from neighboring Costa Rica on Nov. 15. Foreign ministers from countries that belong to the Central American Integration System met Tuesday in El Salvador to discuss the situation but the impasse continues.

Ecuador had been a favorite jumping off point for Cubans to begin their journey northward because it didn’t require Cubans to obtain visas. But Educador announced Thursdaythat beginning Tuesday, Cubans would need to get a visa before traveling to the South American country.

That set off rare public protests in Havana on Friday as hundreds of angry Cubans who wanted visas gathered outside the Ecuadorian Embassy and were told they would need to apply online. Disgruntled crowds also gathered outside the Havana offices of Copa Airlines, fearing tickets already purchased for future flights to Ecuador would not be honored without a visa. On Saturday, some protesters laid down on Fifth Avenue, near the Ecuadorean Embassy, to protest the new visa requirement.

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said Saturday on his Twitter account that Cubans who purchased tickets to Ecuador prior to Nov. 26 — the day the change was announced — would receive visas.

Ecuador said it changed its policy to protect Cubans making the risky journey north from “unscrupulous people traffickers.” Requiring a tourism visa, the Foreign Ministry said, “doesn’t close the gates to our brothers and our brother Cubans” who still may apply for travel to Ecuador.

In Miami, the Cuban American National Foundation said Monday that it was working on a program to help the Cubans stranded in Central America. It is similar to the Foundation’s Exodus program, which helped some 10,000 Cubans in various countries around the world in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Jorge Mas Santos, president of CANF.

The Foundation is working closely with the U.S. administration to try to find a solution to the Central American problem, said Mas Santos at a news conference. “It isn’t easy,” he said. “There are complications but we will find a solution for our brothers.”

He said CANF was trying to come up with a creative solution so the Cubans wouldn’t become “a burden” on the United States and on “the people who pay taxes in this country.”

Also taking part in the news conference was graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto, who was released from Cuban jail on Oct. 20 and is on a visit to the United States. He emphasized the need to come up with a solution for those marooned in Central America, but said it was also important for Cubans to remain in Cuba to promote change there.

“They aren’t alone and we’re not going to leave them alone, but we can’t give out a prize for emigration. To leave, to escape can’t be a solution for Cuba,” he said.

Maldonado was held for 10 months in Cuba without trial after being accused of disrespect. He was arrested with two pigs that were painted with the names “Fidel” and “ Raúl,” which he had hoped to use in a performance art piece.

Nora Gámez Torres, Cuba reporter for El Nuevo Herald, contributed to this report.

Mimi Whitefield Twitter: @HeraldMimi