U.S. should end special treatment for Cubans, Costa Rican minister says

A migration officer checks the documents of Cuban migrants before they board a chartered flight in Panama City in May. U.S. officials are urging Latin American governments to stem the tide of Cubans who travel through South and Central America to reach the United States.
A migration officer checks the documents of Cuban migrants before they board a chartered flight in Panama City in May. U.S. officials are urging Latin American governments to stem the tide of Cubans who travel through South and Central America to reach the United States. AP

The foreign minister of Costa Rica has called on the United States to abandon the Cuban Adjustment Act, saying it’s largely responsible for attracting tens of thousands of Cubans to Latin American countries, which they then use as a springboard to get to the United States.

Foreign Minister Manuel González said this week that Costa Rica and other transit countries – from Ecuador to Mexico – were paying the consequences of the controversial law that all but guaranteed Cubans’ admission to the United States, by permitting those who reach the U.S. to stay there. Now that Cuba and the United States have restored relations, González questions the need for a law constructed in the midst of the Cold War, he said.

“We don’t disregard the humanitarian perspective,” González said during an interview about the thousands of Cubans who’ve passed through Latin America this year as they tried to get from the island to the United States. “But this has cost us millions of dollars – and millions of dollars that we don’t have available. Our people are claiming how is it possible that you don’t invest in your own people and you spend millions of dollars on handling migrants?”

Costa Rica found itself at the center of the controversy earlier this year, when thousands of Cubans were stranded after officials broke up a smuggling ring that was bringing them from Ecuador. Gonzalez said the United States must do more than simply urge the countries to be tougher on enforcing their own immigration laws.

Largely at the behest of the Obama administration, the governments of Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Panama have ramped up enforcement efforts in an effort to keep thousands of Cubans, as well as migrants of other nationalities, from using those nations to get to the United States. The United States has urged Latin American leaders to tighten their borders, dismantle smuggling networks and issue travel documents only for legal travel.

The efforts have alarmed Cuban activists, who say the U.S.-encouraged crackdown will only force desperate Cubans back into the ocean for the more dangerous journey through the Florida Straits.

But the U.S. push has had an impact. Officials in Colombia this month began deporting to Cuba about 1,200 Cubans who had been stranded there after Panama closed its border. The Panamanian government warned 600 Cuban migrants that they had until mid-August to abandon the region or risk deportation. Mexico recently deported more than 88 Cubans.

U.S. officials acknowledge that the administration has been pressing regional governments to toughen their efforts in order to discourage unsanctioned Cuban migration. “We have encouraged regional governments to work together to find solutions to the ongoing Cuban migration challenge and prevent irregular migration,” a senior State Department official said, agreeing to discuss the issue only anonymously because of its sensitivity.

More than 46,500 Cubans were admitted to the United States without visas during the first 10 months of the 2016 fiscal year, according to the Pew Research Center. That figure compares with more than 43,000 in 2015 and just over 24,000 in 2014.

For many of the deportees, the return to Cuba represents the end of what had been a journey for which they’d risked everything.

José Antonio Quesada, 46, and his pregnant wife, who reached Miami on May 10, recounted his journey in a tale that gains in poignancy when viewed from the perspective of those who failed.

The two lawyers sold their house and everything else they owned and leaned on family in Miami to raise the $2,300 – the equivalent of five years’ salary – that they needed for the journey for airfares, bus fares and smuggling fees. They spent two months traveling from Ecuador over Colombia’s mountains and through Panama’s jungles before they were able to board a flight to Mexico and then to the United States.

But he has friends who are stuck in southern Panama because they couldn’t afford the journey and now the borders are closed.

“If we tried to come now, we would not be able to make it,” Quesada said. “I have a friend who is still stuck in Puerto Obaldia in Panama.”

Colombian migration officials said they could not discuss collaboration with the United States, but they noted it’s not only Cubans who have been coming to the U.S. border.

Perhaps encouraged by the Cubans, a surge of migrants from Haiti, Africa and the Middle East have been following a similar route, drawing comparisons to the much larger migration crisis unfolding in Europe.

The exodus is a huge concern for Cuban officials, who charge the United States is encouraging “illegal” and dangerous migration by tens of thousands of Cubans who fear their windows of opportunity might close. The communist government likens the migrant flow to stealing – many would-be arrivals are professionals trained at Cuban government expense – and see it as an obstacle to improved relations with the United States.

It’s a touchy subject for the United States, which has long generously welcomed Cubans who fled the repressive regime constructed by Fidel Castro. But times have changed. The Cold War is over. The two countries, once bitter enemies, have re-established relations.

Cuban activist Ramon Saul Sanchez said the crackdown by regional governments hadn’t affected the number of Cubans arriving in Miami and that in any case, islanders would continue to flee until the Cuban government provided them with economic opportunities at home. That, he said, will mean that more will take the dangerous ocean route or hire human smugglers who can take them through perilous jungle regions where they can avoid authorities in other countries.

That assertion is supported by U.S. Coast Guard statistics, which show a steady increase in the number of Cubans attempting the sea crossing.

As of Thursday, the Coast Guard said, 545 Cubans had attempted to reach the United States by sea in August. In July, 773 migrants made the trek, compared with 653 in June.

The number of sea journeys so far this year, both successful and intercepted – 6,310 – already has surpassed those for 2015 – 4,473 – and 2014 –3,940.

How many don’t survive the effort is unknown. Since Ecuador began cracking down on Cubans last month, Sanchez said, he’s been receiving more calls from loved ones looking for family members who attempted to come by sea.

“A lot of people have now disappeared or died,” Sanchez said. “I get calls – 10, 12, 14 a day – from relatives here looking.”

Nora Gamez Torres and Mario J. Penton of El Nuevo Herald contributed to this article from Miami.