Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thousands of Cuban migrants stuck at Nicaraguan border in limbo amid political impasse

Thousands of Cuban migrants stuck at Nicaraguan border in limbo amid
political impasse

Cubans travel across eight nations and 4,800 miles
Border impasse with Nicaragua strands 2,000
Region's foreign ministers plan to meet in coming days

The slow-moving river of Cuban migrants heading to the United States had
already braved corrupt cops, thieving coyotes, a perilous boat trip and
a trek through Central American jungles.

But the obstacle that ended their journey in this small agricultural
town, just a few miles from the border with Nicaragua, is more vexing:

For nearly a week, almost 2,000 Cubans have been stranded along the
Costa Rica-Nicaragua frontier after the government in Managua balked at
their sheer numbers and denied them passage. On Sunday, as an estimated
1,600 frustrated Cubans broke through the border gate on their way
north, they were repelled by riot police, tear gas and the national army.

That has left entire families stranded in this rural swath of Costa
Rica, wondering how and when they'll be able to continue their journey.

Roberto Carlos Pizarro, a 24-year-old computer scientist on his way to
Houston, was among the group that tried to push its way into Nicaragua
over the weekend. As he and his cousin prepared to spend another night
sleeping on a concrete slab outside Costa Rica's immigration checkpoint,
he feared the crowds might have gone too far.

"We invaded Nicaragua by force, yes, but we were desperate," he
explained. "If Nicaragua is like Cuba, I don't think they will forgive
us for that. I don't think they will ever let us across."


The overland journey from Cuba to the United States is seen as safer
than braving the Florida Straits in a raft. But it's still long and
perilous, covering eight nations and 4,800 miles. Most people said they
had sold homes or gone deep into debt to scrounge up the $3,000-$7,000
dollars for the trip.

For many, it begins with a flight from Havana to Ecuador, one of the few
countries that doesn't require Cubans to have visas. From there, they
travel overland through Colombia to the Atlantic port of Turbo, where
they're whisked across the Gulf of Urabá to Panama to continue the long
slog up through Central America.

In the year ending Sept. 20, more than 45,000 Cubans arrived at U.S.
checkpoints along the Mexican border.


Almost all the migrants complained about being shaken down and menaced
by the police in Colombia or being robbed by their guides, or coyotes,
in Panama. But Nicaragua had the reputation for being the easy leg of
the journey. Until recently, Cubans said they could present themselves
to Nicaraguan immigration officials, pay a fine of about $80, and be
bussed by authorities to the northern border with Honduras.

Like a glitch in a factory line, however, migrants and officials said
the route began breaking down days earlier at the Panama-Costa Rica
border. In Paso Canoas, in southern Costa Rica, Cuban migrants would
usually spend two or three days as they were processed by immigration.
But this month there were delays, and as days turned into weeks for
some, Cubans continued streaming into the town.

"There were more and more of us coming in and we decided to go on
strike," recalls Darien Pavía, a 32-year-old bartender from Havana. When
they were finally let go, on Saturday, they arrived en masse at
Nicaragua's southern border.

"Everybody was so anxious that we just pushed through and that's where
we had the clash with tear gas and all the violence," he said.

Nicaragua has accused Costa Rica of provoking a humanitarian crisis by
"launching" the Cubans at them without warning and said it was only
trying to safeguard its frontier.

Part of the crowd's desperation comes from growing rumors that the Cuban
Adjustment Act, which grants legal status and other benefits to Cuban
political asylum seekers in the United States, might be ending.

The rumor mill in Cuba is in high gear with reports that the pact will
be suspended in December amid the Washington-Havana rapprochement and
growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, said Jorge Luis
Vento, who had tried to escape the island as a rafter in the 1990s. U.S.
officials have said they have no plans to change U.S. policy for Cuban

While some in the U.S. have questioned the preferential treatment for
Cubans, Vento denied suggestions that many islanders are escaping for
economic, rather than political, reasons.

"Somebody who sells their entire life to go country by country by
country to get to the United States — the only reason you would do that
is because you can't take it any more," he said.

Jorge Luis Vento, Cuban migrant

Cuba's Foreign Ministry has blamed the U.S. policy for fueling the
crisis, saying it "stimulates irregular emigration from Cuba to the
United States."

Carlos Matías Gonzaga is the mayor of La Cruz, a usually sleepy
agricultural town of about 20,000. With some 160-200 Cubans arriving
each day, Gonzaga jokes about the changing demographics.

"I like to tell people that we already have a Little Havana and that
pretty soon we'll also have a Little Camaguey," he said.

The national government and aid organizations have helped keep the
migratory wave from becoming a burden, he said. And at least eight
shelters have been established and a local church has been coordinating
efforts to feed the Cubans three times a day.

But Gonzaga said it's far from a local problem.

"I am asking the international community — not to help Costa Rica, but
to help our Cuban brothers whose aspirations are liberty and a better
life," he said. "Everybody needs to look into their heart and do what
they can to help them reach their destination — whether they make it
there or not."

For many, the current crisis is rich in historical ironies. Some of
those stranded pointed out that after Nicaragua's Cuba-inspired 1979
revolution, Havana sent thousands of health workers and teachers to the
Central American nation.

"We taught them how to read and write," groused one migrant, "and now
this is how they're repaying us?"

Carlos Herrera, the national chief of disaster planning for Costa Rica's
Red Cross, said the only similar humanitarian crisis in the region was
in the 1970s, when Nicaraguans flowed into Costa Rica during the civil war.

"But this time there is no conflict," he said. "They're creating the
problem by not letting them pass."

Cuba and Nicaragua remain staunch allies and some wondered if President
Daniel Ortega was doing Raúl Castro a backhanded favor.

"For Cuba, [migrants] are against the system — we're traitors to the
country," said Luís Aldama, a 60-year-old hospital administrator trying
to make it to Tucson, Arizona.

Ortega "closed the border to not look bad for the Castros," he
speculated. "This is pure politics."


It's far from clear how the crisis will end. Foreign ministers from
Ecuador to Mexico are expected to meet in El Salvador on Tuesday to try
to resolve the humanitarian issue.

Neighboring countries have reacted in a "positive and supportive way"
and understand that it's an issue "that needs to be dealt with by the
entire region," Costa Rica Foreign Minister Manuel González said in a
statement Thursday.

Also Thursday, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, wrote to President
Barack Obama asking about White House plans — if any — to manage the
Cuban influx and coordinate with Mexican and Central American authorities.

"It is now clear that many Cubans are responding to the idea of a normal
relationship between their oppressors and the United States with fear
and desperation, leading many of them to risk their safety and their
lives to escape the prison that is Castro's Cuba," he wrote. " I am
concerned about what that means for my community in South Florida."

Even so, some worry that there are now so many Cubans congregated at the
border that it will cause a domino effect: If they get through
Nicaragua, will Honduras, Guatemala or Mexico be prepared to take on
thousands of them arriving in unison?

Yolanda Romero Marquez, a 65-year-old with diabetes and high blood
pressure, was on her way to Indiana to join her sons and grandchildren
and had spent four days camped out at the border crossing — refusing to
go a few miles back to the relative comfort of the shelters.

As she sprawled amid cardboard and foam mattresses, she said her
presence here — at the border — was important.

"If we leave here and this becomes calm, they'll forget about us," she
said. "People have to know that we're here and that we have to get through."

Miami Herald Political Correspondent Patricia Mazzei contributed to this

Source: Thousands of Cuban migrants stuck at Nicaraguan border in limbo
amid political impasse | Miami Herald -

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