Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Social media helps drive historic Cuban exodus to US

Social media helps drive historic Cuban exodus to US
Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press Updated 4:33 am, Tuesday,
November 24, 2015

PENAS BLANCAS, Costa Rica (AP) — As summer began to bake the central
Cuban city of Sancti Spiritus, Elio Alvarez and Lideisy Hernandez sold
their tiny apartment and everything in it for $5,000 and joined the
largest migration from their homeland in decades.
Buying two smartphones for $160 apiece on a layover on their way to
Ecuador, they plugged themselves into a highly organized, well-funded
and increasingly successful homebrewed effort to make human traffickers
obsolete by using smartphones and messaging apps on much of the
3,400-mile (5,500-kilometer) overland journey that's become Cubans' main
route to the U.S.

Some 45,000 Cubans are expected to move by bus, boat, taxi and on foot
from Ecuador and other South and Central American countries to the Texas
and California borders this year, afraid that the normalization of
relations between the U.S. and Cuba will mean an imminent end to special
immigration privileges that date to the opening of the Cold War. With
thousands more taking rafts across the Florida Straits, 2015 may witness
the biggest outflow of Cubans since the 1980 Mariel boatlift that hauled
125,000 people across the Florida Straits.
The overland exodus has caused a border crisis in Central America, set
off tensions in the newly friendly U.S.-Cuban relationship and sparked
rising calls in the U.S. to end Cubans' automatic right to legal
residency once they touch U.S. soil.
At the heart of it all is Cubans' ability to cross some of the world's
most dangerous territory relatively unscathed by the corrupt border
guards, criminal gangs and human traffickers known as coyotes who make
life hell for so many other Latin American migrants. Key to that ability
is the constant flow of information between migrants starting the
journey and those who have just completed it.
"Those who've arrived have gotten in touch with their acquaintances,
their friends, and tell them how the route is. That means that no one
needs a coyote," said Hernandez, a 32-year-old psychologist. "You go
making friends along the way. I myself have 70, 80-something friends on
Facebook who've already gotten to the United States."
Cuban migrants start with an advantage others can only dream of: Many
countries along the route grant Cubans free passage because their
government does not respond to most requests for information about
illegal migrants that would allow them to be deported. And many Cubans
who run out of money along the way have access to hundreds or thousands
of dollars in backup funds sent by relatives who belong to one of the
United States' most prosperous immigrant groups.
Once they reach the U.S. border, they can just show up at an established
U.S. port of entry and declare their nationality, avoiding the dangerous
desert crossings that confront many migrants who try to avoid U.S.
Border Patrol. Federal data shows 45,000 Cubans appeared at U.S. land
border points in the 12 months ending Sept. 20, and at least as many are
expected in the coming year.
But along the way, Cubans still must navigate jungles, rivers, at least
seven international borders and countries in the grip of gangs
responsible for some of the world's highest homicide rates.
Asked their secret, Cubans interviewed in shelters along Costa Rica's
northern border with Nicaragua almost universally pointed to cheap
smartphones, data plans and Facebook.
"We're completely, always, alert to our phones," Alvarez said, gesturing
to his Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini outside a border statin in northern Costa
Rica, where he and some 2,000 other Cuban migrants were stuck waiting
for resolution of a regional conflict set off by Nicaragua's closure of
the crossing. "This is our best friend, the phone. It's always on,
always ready."
The metallic "zing!" of a new message arriving in the Facebook Messenger
app has become the soundtrack to this year's historic migration as
Cubans consult friends further along the route for tips on bus routes,
border closures, even how much to bribe the notoriously corrupt
Colombian police.
"They tell you when you can get money, at what moment you can arrive
somewhere, what hotel to go to," said Annieli de los Reyes, pharmacist
from the eastern city of Camaguey. "In all of those things, you run less
risk and go with more security and peace of mind."
While many move across large swathes of territory independent of
coyotes, others still depend on traffickers, most commonly when they
need to get across complicated borders.
On Nov. 10, a U.S.-backed Costa Rican task force on human trafficking
arrested 12 people suspected of helping run an international ring that
charged Cubans between $7,000 and $15,000 to be smuggled from South
America to the U.S. border, or $400 to be moved safely across Costa Rica.
Alongside the anti-trafficking operation, Costa Rica began holding
Cubans in the town of Paso Canoas on the Panamanian border. Their
numbers grew to around 1,600 until Costa Rica announced on Nov. 13 that
it would allow them to transit the country to Nicaragua. Complaining
that it wasn't consulted, Nicaragua dispatched soldiers to the border to
block the Cubans' passage, setting off minor clashes at the Penas
Blancas crossing on Nov. 15.
The dispute has left some 2,000 Cubans stranded in shelters in
Guanacaste province on the Nicaraguan border, with dozens more arriving
daily. The local sales office for telecommunications company Movistar
has increased the number of sales vans along the border from two to
seven, most stationed permanently outside the Cubans' temporary
encampments in schools and churches, selling 2-for-1 $3-per-megabyte
data packages to a steady stream of Cuban migrants.
Central America governments have called an emergency meeting on the
crisis in El Salvador on Tuesday. Nicaragua, a close socialist ally of
Cuba, has not publicly responded to a Costa Rican proposal to create a
"humanitarian corridor" for Cubans to move unhindered toward the U.S.
Cuba, meanwhile, has made a series of public statements blaming U.S.
emigration policies for drawing so many from their homeland, draining
the country of badly needed professionals and working-age adults.
Ironically, the Cuban government has been joined by an increasing number
of Cuban-American legislators in the U.S. who say the Cold War-era Cuban
Adjustment Act that grants new migrants special privileges is being
abused by economic migrants instead of granting asylum to political
refugees as originally intended.
Outside observers say Cuba's own policies also fuel emigration, which
siphons dissatisfied Cubans away from the island and increases the
number of people injecting badly needed remittances into Cuba's
cash-starved economy. The communist government did away with a hated
exit permit three years ago and also began allowing Cubans to establish
permanent residence in the U.S. while maintaining their property rights
and access to social services in Cuba.
Geny Machado worked as a private shopkeeper in the Havana neighborhood
of Guanabacoa before he hopscotched from Trinidad and Tobago to
Venezuela, where he started a months-long journey north with stops to
work and earn money for the next stages. Other Cubans interviewed in
Costa Rica were making their way from as far south as Chile, Argentina
and Brazil.
Machado showed a reporter a string of Facebook messages from a friend
recently arrived in the U.S. advising him on the best route from
Guatemala City to the Mexican border; what to say to Mexican border
guards once he arrived; what hotel to stay at on his first night in
Mexico; and even the nightly rate: $10.
"The one who's ahead guides the one behind," said Machado, 45. "We go
along communicating like that. Social networks are what's helping Cubans
along the whole migration route, more than the coyotes."
When migrants are stopped by border guards along the route, officials'
first step is contacting the migrant's country to confirm their
identity. In the case of Cubans, that's often impossible. The Cuban
government doesn't respond to as many as 90 percent of inquiries about
people with Cuban passports but no visas, said Mario Madrazo Ubach, head
of immigration control at Mexico's National Migration Institute. Since
entering the country without a visa in itself isn't a crime in Mexico,
Mexican authorities generally give the Cubans 20 days to leave the
country, which they use to get to the U.S. border and claim legal
residency. Similar scenarios take place throughout Central America.
"You're not going to find Cubans in the back of tractor-trailers,"
Madrazo said.
Still, Cubans are not immune to the dangers of northbound migration. A
migrants' rights group said in July that Mexican border officials had
been holding Cubans in border inspection stations until their relatives
in the U.S. sent as much as $5,000 to win their freedom.
Mario Martinez, 24, trained as a computer programmer but worked in a
barber shop in the Havana neighborhood of Marianao until he left for
Ecuador this fall with his friend and traveling partner Manuel Gonzalez.
Sitting on the floor of a public bathroom next to the only available
electrical outlet he could find in a bus station on the Costa
Rica-Nicaragua border, he said that Facebook friends had been steering
the two men away from coyotes, saying that "it was going to end up being
very expensive, that they were going to charge us more money, that they
could cheat us."
"The first ones, sure, they had to do this with 'contacts,' the great
majority had coyotes," Martinez said as Gonzalez's Facebook Messenger
app pinged with the sound of new messages arriving. "But there were
coyotes who were picking people up to cheat them, to kill people, to
rape them. So now we Cubans are showing each other how to do the journey
on our own."
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein
Christine Armario in Havana and Eduardo Castillo and Maria Verza in
Mexico City contributed to this report.

Source: Social media helps drive historic Cuban exodus to US - San
Antonio Express-News -

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