Nearly 2,000 Cuban refugees are stranded on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border after the former nation, an ally of Cuban dictator Raúl Castro, refused them entry despite possessing legal visas from the Costa Rican government. The Nicaraguan military used tear gas and water cannons on the Cubans, injuring many.
The crisis began a week ago in Costa Rica, where authorities arrested the leaders of a large human smuggling network specializing in transiting Cuban nationals from Ecuador to the United States. As Ecuador’s government is allied with Cuba’s, traveling to the South American nation is easier for those trapped by the island nation’s prohibitive movement policies. Many Cubans have increasingly opted to take the land route over the dangerous maritime voyage from the island to Florida. The smugglers, or “coyotes,” allegedly demanded from $7,000 to $30,000 a person for a safe journey into the United States.
As a result, between 1,700 and 2,500 Cuban refugees who had purchased the service are now stranded in Costa Rica. Costa Rica, a democratic and stable nation with close ties to the United States, gave the Cubans legal passage through their country to Nicaragua with a seven-day visa. Despite being documented refugees with visas, the Nicaraguan army responded to the mass of Cubans attempting to cross the border to travel north with tear gas and water cannons, in some cases allegedly physically attacking the refugees.
“They didn’t ask us anything. They made us all sit down in the street, and out of nowhere they began firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Several people were injured,” said Suartey Ébora, a refugee trying to cross into Nicaragua with her one-year-old daughter Lindsay. The tear gas had broken Lindsay’s lip and burned her skin.
Video has surfaced on social media of a toddler in the arms of her mother bleeding from the lip, though there is no confirmation this is Lindsay Ébora.
(Warning: strong language in Spanish)
The Nicaraguan government has accused the refugees of entering “by force” and blamed Costa Rica for “unleashing a humanitarian crisis with serious consequences for our region.” Nicaraguan officials, in turn, have said that Nicaragua’s rejection of refugees “deserved the reproach of the international community.”
Those who could kept walking into Nicaragua. In this video, a Cuban woman urges allies to “help us all in the United States. Share this video, put it on Twitter”:
So far, hundreds have been returned to the Costa Rican border. The Costa Rican government has launched a humanitarian initiative there, providing temporary shelter, food, and water. “Costa Rican authorities have initiated a humanitarian operation to tend to more than 1,200 Cuban nationals in transit north,” the government said in a statement. Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, is a former Marxist guerrillero who has close ties to Cuba.
Meanwhile, Cubans back in Costa Rica are telling harrowing stories of traveling in the middle of the night with smugglers before getting arrested. One man, speaking to Costa Rica’s El Nacional, explains:
We really did not even know where we were going. The groups of coyotes take us – a group we don’t know – at night. It’s insane, desperate. Maybe some people will judge us, “you people are crazy.” No. You have to see this situation. We have spent days hear eating bread and butter, drinking. At some point you can’t take it anymore and the neurons stop working well and you make rash decisions in difficult moments… This is full of animals, snakes, insects, it’s terrible.
Cubans are given legal refugee status upon entering the United States as part of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allots for the dire political situation on the island. In developing an identity as Cuban Americans, the ethnic group has developed a unique identity within the United States, many tending to be more conservative-leaning and more highly educated than the general Latino population. According to the Pew Research Center, Cubans in the United States are almost twice as likely to possess a Bachelor’s degree as the average Latin American. Sixty percent of Cubans in the U.S. speak English, as opposed to 34 percent of Latin Americans in the country.
The number of Cubans striving to reach the United States has increased dramatically since President Obama announced a series of concessions to the Castro regime in December 2014. The United States Coast Guard reported a 117-percent increase in the number of Cubans caught trying to travel to Florida between December 2013 and December 2013; only 80 of the 500 caught during that time made the trip before President Obama’s speech announcing “normalization” with Cuba. In general, the U.S. experienced a 60 percent increase in the number of Cubans trying to enter the country in the last trimester of 2014.
The United States Embassy in Havana tweeted it was “concerned by the situation of Cuban migrants trying to reach the United States through Costa Rica.”
— Embajada EE.UU. Cuba (@USEmbCuba) November 16, 2015