The government of Honduras is facing unprecedented numbers of Cuban refugees who opt to reach its shores on makeshift maritime vessels, hoping to cross north towards the United States. Honduras has apprehended 5,000 Cuban nationals so far this year, 3,000 more than the entirety of 2014.
Honduras’ National Migration Institute reported this number, noting that in the past 24 hours, officials had located and processed 69 allegedly illegal migrants, 39 of whom were Cubans. (The others were described as Nepalese and African.) Refugees apprehended elsewhere in the country are transferred to Tegucigalpa, the capital, to be processed, and are given 72 hours legal stay in the country. Most Cubans are gone by the time that time is up, traveling north to Mexico and, eventually, the United States. Since Cubans are given legal political refugee status upon touching American soil, they are allowed to remain legally and indefinitely in the United States.
The Honduran immigration agency noted that in 2013, only 2,484 Cubans were processed in the capital, with that number falling to a flat 2,000 in 2014. This year, the situation has changed dramatically. The 5,000 Cubans processed so far are among 8,500 foreigners entering the country illegally, many of them Iraqi, Pakistani, Ghanaian, and Somalian.
The number of Cubans attempting to reach Honduras began to skyrocket following the announcement by President Barack Obama that the United States would begin to formally legitimize the communist dictatorship of Raúl Castro with a “normalization” process that would include the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. That announcement was made in December 2014. Since then, nearly 24,000 Cubans have arrived on American soil, both through Mexico and the more traditional water route to Florida. Between December 2013 and December 2014, the U.S. Coast Guard reported a 117% increase in the number of Cubans processed trying to enter the United States.
Cubans have been using Honduras as a path to the United States for more than a decade, however. A Miami Herald report from 2005 describes the madness in Tegucigalpa then, when officials began reporting a significant increase in the number of Cuban refugees washing ashore. ”We have relatives from Miami calling us at all hours looking for their family,” said one immigration official, who noted that the Cubans did not stay in Honduras for long, only warning their family would be arriving soon: “The balseros arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They tell us more are on the way. Then, they disappear.”
Back then, Honduran Director of Migration Ramón Romero noted that Honduras did not “have the resources to handle it” and that, “if this turns into a massive influx, we’ll have to make a decision.” Romero was also quoted in a 2004 Washington Post article saying that Honduras was open to helping Cubans make their way to the United States. “The Honduran people know what the Cubans are suffering, that they are being repressed and that they don’t have liberties,” he said, promising not to repatriate them.
The Honduran government has changed hands numerous times since 2004, so whether that policy still applies remains to be seen. The Honduran National Congress appears to have significantly warmed up to Cuba, however, going as far as awarding Fidel Castro with a medal on his 89th birthday this year.