The more than 8,000 Cuban refugees stranded in Costa Rica after Castro ally Nicaragua rejected their legal visas will fly over Nicaragua to El Salvador to commence their voyage to the United States, a coalition of Central American nations announced this week.
The deal—brokered between El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico—resulted in the scheduling of a “test run,” shipping an undetermined number of Cuban refugees north to El Salvador in the beginning of January. From El Salvador, they will travel to Mexico via bus and ultimately to the United States, where they will receive legal status under the Cuban Adjustment Act, which recognizes those fleeing the communist Castro regime as refugees.
The government of Guatemala described the first round of transportation as a “pilot” program meant to ease the concerns of Central American nations regarding potential safety hazards in allowing the refugees to travel through their countries. The Miami Herald confirmed that up to 8,000 Cubans are currently in a makeshift refugee camp in Costa Rica, all having arrived there after paying human traffickers to transport them to the United States.
Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González called the deal “absolutely exceptional,” while reiterating that the deal would be a one-time effort for Cubans currently stranded, and any Cuban refugees entering Costa Rica from now on would be deported. Meanwhile, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Carlos Raúl Morales noted that the deal would not be complete until the end of the pilot program, when “technical aspects” of the transport would be confirmed.
The government of Nicaragua, which borders Costa Rica, did not participate in the talks. President Daniel Ortega, a former member of the Marxist Sandinista terrorist guerrilla, is Cuba’s strongest ally in the region and has refused to cooperate in helping resettle the Cuban refugees.
Beyond failing to help the families attempting to reach the United States, where they are legally entitled permanent residency status, Ortega ordered the Nicaraguan army to attack the refugees in November, using tear gas and rubber bullets. “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,” Suartey Ébora, a Cuban refugee eyewitness, had said.
Following the announcement of a deal, critics of Nicaragua argued that their position against the refugees had nothing to do with national security. “This is probably a favor to the Castro brothers,” Mauricio Díaz, a member of the Central American Parliament, told Spanish news wire EFE. “Cuba is not interested in the United States keeping the ‘wet foot/dry foot’ law because it incentivizes people to leave the country,” he added. Cubans are, for the most part, prohibited from leaving the country, with some exceptions: travel to friendly countries like Russia and Venezuela or state-ordered travel for doctors and soldiers.
The December 2014 announcement that the Obama administration would reopen diplomatic relations with the Castro regime has triggered an exodus of Cubans, fearing that the move would give the Cuban government greater flexibility in oppressing political dissidents, rationing basic goods, and limiting government salaries. After the announcement, the U.S. Coast Guard reported a 117 percent increase in the number of Cuban refugees found trying to flee to Miami between December 2013 and December 2014.