Saturday, November 28, 2015

Cuba sees rare protest as migration tensions rise

Cuba sees rare protest as migration tensions rise
By Nick Miroff November 27 at 6:05 PM

HAVANA — Irate Cubans protested outside airline offices and at the
Ecuadoran Embassy on Friday, a day after Ecuador announced new visa
requirements for Cuban travelers in an attempt to cut off what has
become a popular, if circuitous, migration route to the United States.

Spontaneous public protests are rare in Cuba, and police moved quickly
to close the streets around the Ecuadoran Embassy when a crowd of
hundreds gathered, demanding visas. Elsewhere in Havana, Cubans formed
long lines at airline offices, seeking refunds for flights booked to
Ecuador or seats on one of the last few flights before Dec. 1, when the
new visa requirement will take effect.

"I don't know where I'll go now," said one man outside the Havana
offices of Copa Airlines. He said he had spent $600 on a flight to
Quito, Ecuador, for Dec. 7 but feared it would be useless now that he
would need a visa. "I just want to go somewhere," he said.

Seeing the long line outside the airline's offices, he joined a group of
other Cubans headed to the Ecuadoran Embassy.

By late afternoon, several hundred protesters remained in the streets
near the embassy, chanting, "Give us our money back," as consular
officers urged the crowd to ask the airlines for reimbursements. A heavy
deployment of plainclothes Cuban police and uniformed officers kept the
crowds behind yellow tape, blocking access to the building.

In recent years, Ecuador has become a popular way station for Cubans
heading to the United States, after President Rafael Correa implemented
one of the most lenient visa policies in the world, essentially opening
the country's borders to visitors from any nation.

It did not take long for Cubans to figure out that getting to the United
States through Ecuador was a lot better than getting there on a raft.

Cuban migration to the United States along the Ecuador land route has
been growing ever since. After a flight from Havana to Quito, some
Cubans hire "coyote" smuggling guides to head north, but many, like the
much larger wave of Syrian migrants headed to Europe, rely on
smartphones and social media to navigate the jungles, rivers, border
crossings and criminal gangs who stalk the route.

The number of Cubans using the Ecuador route has increased this year.
Many migrants say they fear that improving U.S.-Cuban relations spell
doom for the unique immigration privileges offering automatic U.S.
residency to any Cuban who reaches American soil, regardless of whether
the point of arrival is a South Florida beach or a border crossing with

Some 45,000 Cubans are projected to reach the United States in 2015,
turning this year into one of the biggest for Cuban emigration in decades.

So many Cubans have passed through Central America in recent weeks that
their presence touched off a border conflict between Costa Rica and

Nicaragua's government, led by longtime Cuban ally Daniel Ortega, began
blocking Cuban migrants from entering the country, causing a backup.
Some 3,000 Cubans are stranded in Costa Rica, and a regional summit this
week aimed at resolving the impasse failed to persuade Nicaragua to
grant the Cubans passage.

On Thursday, Ecuador tried to stem the problem at the source by adding
the visa requirement. It does not block Cubans from coming but will
require them to obtain visas beforehand.Several Cubans interviewed
Friday said they would try to find another route.

"I'm going to try to change my ticket to Guyana," said a young man
outside the Copa offices, who, like others, did not want to give his
name because his travel plans involved semi-illegal activity. "I hear
you don't need a visa for Russia, either."

He insisted that he was not planning to head to the United States and
said he was one of the many Cubans who travel to Ecuador to buy cheap
clothing and other items for sale on Cuba's black market.

The Cuban government blames the United States for the crisis, saying
U.S. immigration perks create a powerful incentive for Cubans to attempt
risky, illegal journeys, even as the U.S. Consulate in Havana denies
visas to those wishing to travel legally. U.S. officials say the Castro
government's failed socialist system and lack of freedoms are driving
Cubans to flee.

The new Cuban surge is expected to dominate the agenda Monday when U.S.
and Cuban officials meet in Washington for regular talks on migration

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from
the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America's southern cone. He has
been a staff writer since 2006.

Source: Cuba sees rare protest as migration tensions rise - The
Washington Post -

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