Cuban migrants stuck in Central America

Cuban migrants stuck in Central America

Thousands of migrants from Cuba heading out from Ecuador are stuck in Central America, as Costa Rica and Nicaragua squabble over freedom of movement.

In 2008, the government of Rafael Correa reformed Ecuador’s constitution to reflect the country’s shift to the political left. Among the reformed articles was the commitment to foster the principle of “universal citizenship and free mobility of every inhabitant of the planet.”

Shortly after the adoption of the newly amended constitution, Ecuador scrapped visa requirements for all nationalities, thereby fueling an exodus of immigrants from countries as far away as Afghanistan and Eritrea. Unable to cope with the migrant flow, Ecuador imposed visas on 10 different countries, none of them Latin American.

Ecuador as door to Latin America and U.S

Since then, the flow of Cuban immigrants to the Andean nation has increased considerably, since Ecuador remains the only Latin American nation to maintain an open door policy for Cuban nationals. Between 2009 and 2013, almost 120,000 Cubans arrived in Ecuador, an impressive figure for a country of just over 11 million inhabitants.

Ecuador’s policies are interesting as even Cuba’s close friends, Venezuela and Nicaragua, maintain visa requirements. For many Cubans, Ecuador provides an entry point to Latin America and eventually the United States, where they are granted resident status.

Ironically, the recent U.S.-Cuban rapprochement has encouraged many Cubans to leave the island for the United States, since they fear that the renewal of ties will bring an eventual normalization of relations and that the U.S. will cease to grant Cubans the status of refugees.

Consequently, thousands of Cubans have embarked on an unusual journey to the United States via South and Central America. The route begins in Ecuador and runs through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Risks abound along the route, particularly due to the strong presence of organized criminal groups but also due to political constraints.

Cuban migrants victim of regional political deadlock

Nicaragua, a staunch ally of the Cuban regime, has recently closed its borders to Cuban nationals coming from Costa Rica. In just a week this has resulted in over 3000 Cuban migrants becoming stranded in the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. Moreover, these developments have sparked accusations between the two nations of violations of sovereignty and irresponsible management of migrant movement.

In order to deal with this pressing issue, a summit for Central American countries plus Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Mexico was called in San Salvador. However, instead of delivering a solution, the summit merely highlighted the lack of consensus, particularly between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Costa Rica has given temporary visas to Cubans to cross the country into Nicaragua. However, Nicaragua has responded by blocking its borders to Cubans, claiming it cannot cope with the migrant flow.

Given the increasing number of immigrants, Ecuador announced that it will impose visa requirements on Cubans as of December 1st, sparking protests from angry travelers at the Ecuadoran embassy in Havana.

However, it remains unclear what will happen to the thousands of Cuban migrants along the Latin American corridor. Costa Rica has started to deport Cuban migrants recently, while other countries have failed to reach or commit to a solution.

The newly imposed Ecuadorian visa requirement will contribute to curbing migrant flow from the island. However, as the Cuban regime begins to loosen its restrictions on nationals traveling abroad, thousands more will keep trying to reach the United States through unconventional routes.

The Cuban migrant issue should therefore foster Latin American unity and integration of the island in Pan-American affairs.

Meanwhile, Cuba must officially acknowledge that its hard stance on political and civil liberties will only foster the desire of many Cubans to flee and should therefore undertake a holistic, albeit gradual, solution to keep its population within its territory. Political and civil liberties, together with economic development are imperative, but the willingness of the Cuban regime to achieve them remains uncertain.

Categories: Latin America, Security

About Author

Eduardo Arcos

Eduardo Arcos is a policy analyst and freelance journalist. He holds an M.Sc. in Security Studies from University College London and a B.A. in International Relations from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM). His research focuses on international political economy, peace and security and Latin American affairs.