Jonathan Watts, Guardian, December 30, 2015
A massive airlift of refugees will begin in Central America next week after regional countries agreed to help thousands of stranded Cubans who have been driven by the threat of normalised relations to migrate to the United States.
Fears that talks between Washington and Havana may soon curtail favourable US migration policies have prompted the biggest rush from the Caribbean island since the “raft exodus” of 1994. More than 40,000 Cubans have entered the US this year, almost double the number in 2014.
Many more are stranded, after travelling via Ecuador, which offered visa-free entry for Cuban arrivals, and then being blocked on their overland route north, at the Nicaraguan border. Since 15 November, the government in Managua, which is an ally of the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, has denied entry to the refugees.
About 6,000 Cubans have been stuck in Costa Rica and Panama for the past six weeks, prompting concerns from the International Red Cross and other aid groups.
Jim Batres, the national director of the Red Cross in Costa Rica said the plan was “light at the end of the tunnel”, but “may not be a complete solution to the problems we have here”.
“There are still many questions. We know that 40,000 Cubans entered Ecuador, but so far only 7,000 are here in Costa Rica. What will happen to the rest? How long will the airlift take? What will happen to people who can’t afford it? This situation could continue for one, two or three months.”
Last Sunday, Pope Francis, called on regional governments “to find a quick solution to this humanitarian drama”.
That appeared to have been achieved on Tuesday, when seven member nations of the Central American Integration System–not including Nicaragua–agreed to arrange flights for the refugees to El Salvador. From there, they are expected to travel by bus through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States.
The Costa Rican foreign minister, Manuel González, said the plan, which begins with a pilot flight next week, was “entirely exceptional” and would only apply to Cubans who currently reside in the country.
Many questions remain unanswered, particularly regarding financing the plan and the role of the US in the agreement. González suggested refugees would have to pay their own way, but many are unlikely to have sufficient funds for a flight.
The details have been left deliberately sketchy to avoid further inflaming regional tensions and resentment among other Latinos who would like to migrate to the US but do not enjoy the same preferential conditions as Cubans.
Since 1966, the US has allowed Cuban visitors to become legal residents within a year of setting foot on US soil, as part of the old cold war strategy to destabilise the Castro government. In the wake of recent diplomatic breakthroughs, however, many fear this policy could soon come to an end. With salaries in the US dozens of times higher than those in Cuba, the economic incentive to leave before a possible tightening of the rules is enormous.
The Cuban minister of foreign relations, Bruno Rodríguez, urged a quick solution to the plight of the refugees stranded in Costa Rica, which he blamed on Washington.
“I strongly believe that the politicisation of US migration policy toward Cuba must change, and must stop encouraging illegal, unsafe and disorderly migration,” he told the national assembly.
Costa Rica’s president Luis Guillermo Solís has also reportedly complained that countries on the Cuban migrants’ route are “victims” of US immigration policy.
The extent to which the US will be part of the solution remains unclear. Although it was not one of the seven countries–Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico–that agreed on the airlift plan, it is likely to have been closely consulted.
US Congress members Kay Granger and Henry Cuellar visited Cuban refugee centres in Costa Rica on Tuesday and joined the US ambassador, Stafford Fitzgerald Haney, and the Costa Rican envoy in Washington at a meeting to discuss the crisis. The host government said it was not planning to ask the US for financial or technical aid.
However, private donations from the US have already begun. Another recent visitor to Costa Rica is Felix Roque, mayor of the New Jersey town of West New York, who told local reporters he had donated a six-figure sum to the refugees.