Cuba

Cuba, U.S. take aim at people smuggling

Cubans gather outside Ecuador's embassy in Havana, expressing frustration at a new rule that now requires a visa to visit the South American country. The lack of a visa requirement for Cubans made Ecuador a favored destination for those seeking to leave the island and make the overland route to the United States, where they can receive automatic legal residency.
Cubans gather outside Ecuador's embassy in Havana, expressing frustration at a new rule that now requires a visa to visit the South American country. The lack of a visa requirement for Cubans made Ecuador a favored destination for those seeking to leave the island and make the overland route to the United States, where they can receive automatic legal residency. AP

The United States said Tuesday that Cuba has agreed to expert-level meetings on how both governments can fight people smuggling networks that have taken advantage of Cuban migrants en route to the United States.

U.S. and Cuban delegations met Monday in Washington for biannual migration talks that included discussions on how the U.S.-Cuban Migration Accords, which were signed in the mid-1990s, were working and on the recent Cuban migrant impasse in Central America.

“The U.S. delegation expressed its concern for the safety of the thousands of Cuban migrants transiting through Central America,” said the U.S. State Department in a media note.

Some 3,000 Cubans who were making their way north to the U.S.-Mexico border where they planned to seek entry under the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act were stopped on Nov. 15 as they tried to enter Nicaragua. Now they are stranded near the border in neighboring Costa Rica awaiting a solution that would allow them to continue their trips.

In an indication that Cuba is growing increasingly concerned over the growing exodus of its people, especially doctors, the government said Tuesday it will begin more closely monitoring the departures of Cuban medical specialists beginning next Monday and putting more restrictions on their private trips abroad.

“This does not mean that medical specialists cannot travel or live abroad, but their dates outside the country will be discussed,” the government announced.

So many Cuban doctors on international medical missions have left their posts, lured by a special U.S. parole program for Cuban medical professionals and by recruiters who seek them out, that it is hurting Cuban medical-cooperation programs and seriously affecting vital specialties such as cardiology, neurosurgery, and orthopedics, the government said.

It also reiterated that medical professionals who have already abandoned their foreign posts can return to Cuba and receive positions comparable to the ones they previously held.

The U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords are supposed to provide for “safe, orderly and legal” migration of Cubans to the United States, but the Cuban side has complained that the potential migrants now trapped in Central America are being victimized by smuggling organizations along a risky path that often begins in Ecuador and winds its way up through the Americas to the Mexican border.

Ecuador was a favorite jumping-off point for Cubans who wanted to eventually enter the United States because it didn’t require them to obtain visas. But as of Tuesday, tourist visas became mandatory for Cubans to visit the South American country.

The Ecuadorean Embassy in Havana began issuing the first visas on Friday to Cubans who had already booked passages to Ecuador before the policy change and it worked overtime to handle the needs of those scheduled to travel in the next few days.

Other countries along the route of the migrants have said they plan to adopt measures to protect their borders and “energetically suppress people-trafficking networks and organized crime,” Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said in a lengthy statement issued Tuesday.

Now these Cubans whose ultimate goal is the United States find themselves in an “illegal situation in Central and South America,” victimized by smuggling gangs that are responsible for “violent acts, extortion, harassment and other crimes” during a journey that requires eight illegal border crossings, the Foreign Ministry said.

During a meeting of foreign ministers of the Central American System of Integration, as well as Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Cuba, all the countries were in favor of stopping “illegal migratory flows” through their territories, the Cuban statement said.

It also said those attending the Nov. 24 meeting in El Salvador opposed preferential U.S. migration policies for Cubans, such as wet foot/dry foot, the Cuban Adjustment Act, and the medical-parole program, which stimulate illegal, unsafe, and disorderly migration.

Such policies, said Cuba, are “incongruous with the diplomatic ties that now exist between the United States and Cuba and the process of dialogue between the two countries,” the Cubans said.

“The administration has no plans to alter current migration policy regarding Cuba,” the U.S. said in its statement. “As with any bilateral relationship, there were some areas of disagreement, but it took place in a respectful, cooperative, and productive environment.”

During the Monday talks, Cuba repeated its call for the United States to eliminate all migration policies that give special preferences to Cubans.

Since 2013 — when Cuba changed its migration laws, abolishing the reviled exit visa — nearly 500,000 Cubans have traveled abroad, an 81 percent increase from the 2010-2012 period, the Cuban government said.

On Tuesday, the U.S. and Cuban delegations also met in Washington to discuss efforts to combat drug trafficking and increase cooperation.

Mimi Whitefield: 305-376-3727, @HeraldMimi

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