An end to wet foot, dry foot
The outgoing American president makes it harder for Donald Trump to undo
the rapprochement with Cuba
Jan 21st 2017 | HAVANA AND MEXICO CITY
Floating to Florida is now futile
AMONG a group of young men gathered in a tin-roofed telephone-repair
shop in Havana, the topic of conversation is how to leave Cuba. The
easiest way, they now reckon, is to marry a European. That is because on
January 12th, in one of his final acts as president, Barack Obama ended
the 22-year-old "wet foot, dry foot" policy, which allowed Cubans who
land on American soil to stay in the country; those caught at sea were
sent home. That shuts off the main escape route for Cubans in search of
a better life.
Mr Obama's decision looks like an attempt to protect one of his few
foreign-policy successes: his agreement with Cuba's president, Raúl
Castro, in December 2014 to restore diplomatic relations and loosen an
economic embargo imposed on the island by the United States in 1960.
Donald Trump, who will become the American president on January 20th,
has said contradictory things about the rapprochement with Cuba, but his
more recent comments have been negative. Some members of his transition
team are fierce opponents of the normalisation policy.
Mr Trump's administration may thus try to undo the rapprochement with
Cuba, which includes freer travel and better telecoms links with the
island. The wet foot, dry foot decision makes that harder. Mr Trump does
not like immigration; he will find it awkward to reverse a decision that
makes it more difficult. It will also be tricky to justify reopening
automatic asylum for Cubans but not for citizens of countries that are
even more repressive.
Fearing that the United States would shut its Cubans-only entrance, many
Cubans rushed to its borders. In fiscal year 2016, which ended in
September, 56,000 arrived, more than double the number of two years
before. Many paid thousands of dollars for tickets and in bribes and
fees to people-smugglers to reach the United States' southern border.
One popular route started with a flight to Ecuador, followed by a
perilous land journey through Central America. Some Cubans still venture
into leaky boats to cross the Florida Strait.
Mr Obama's abrupt decision to end the wet foot, dry foot policy leaves
some—no one is sure how many—stranded en route to the United States.
More than 500 are in southern Mexico, waiting for documentation from the
Mexican government that would allow them to journey to the American
border. They will now be treated just like others clamouring for
admission, though the United States says it will try to give them
Nearly half a million people were caught trying to enter the United
States illegally in fiscal 2015 (down from 1.8m in 2000). They face
detention until they are sent back. About a third were from Central
America's "northern triangle", where governments are less repressive
than in Cuba but violence is far worse. Cubans who face political
persecution will still have a right to asylum. Others can apply for the
20,000 migrant visas available to the country's citizens each year.
American conservatives have slammed Mr Obama's wet foot, dry foot
reversal, and his simultaneous decision to stop giving Cuban doctors who
defect from a third country fast-track entry to the United States, as
his final betrayal of the Cuban people. The regime has become more
repressive since he unfroze relations, they maintain. Arrests of
dissidents, for example, have increased.
Defenders of Mr Obama's thaw point out that the government now uses
short-term detention rather than long jail sentences to discourage its
opponents. The number of political prisoners has fallen sharply.
Although Mr Trump has complained that the United States gets "nothing"
from its new relationship with Cuba, it has led to co-operation in such
areas as drug-trafficking and cyber-crime.
In Havana, the reaction to Mr Obama's gambit is mixed. Cuba's
government, which saw the wet foot, dry foot policy as an insult and a
cause of a damaging brain drain, is pleased. Some ordinary folk think
the change is justified. Wet foot, dry foot was just "another way to
implement the blockade", said a well-dressed woman who would not give
her name. Barbara Izquierdo, a housewife whose brother went to the
United States 15 years ago, admits that most Cubans leave for financial
reasons, not political ones.
But many Cubans, living on monthly incomes of $50-200, are crestfallen.
"We don't live, we survive," says a young man who works in property. He
had hoped to leave and then to return to "build something for myself".
He must now wait for the government to allow greater economic and
political freedom. The death last November of Fidel Castro, the leader
of the Cuban revolution, and Raúl Castro's plan to step down as
president next year, may help bring change. Ambitious Cubans, denied the
prospect of escaping to the United States, may now push harder for that.
Source: An end to wet foot, dry foot | The Economist -