As the radical left organizes obstructions of airport terminals to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order enacting new security measures for travelers visiting from turbulent countries, few appear equally outraged that his predecessor, Barack Obama, issued a similar directive specifically targeting Cubans.
During his last week in office, President Obama repealed a long-standing executive order known as “Wet Foot/Dry Foot,” which allowed all Cubans legally touching U.S. soil to stay here illegally. The objective of the executive order was to give sanctuary to Cubans risking their lives on makeshift vessels trying to sail to the United States and escape the oppressive communist regime that has governed there for over half a century.
The move did not trigger widespread national protests in defense of the Cubans affected, even as U.S. immigration officials – confused by the lack of direction in Obama’s order – detained and interrogated countless travelers possessing legal visas to enter the United States. Many of these were elderly individuals, traveling to visit their children with no intention of stay.
The only activists who spoke up for them were members of the Cuban exile community, who told their stories to local press. Democracy Movement leader Ramón Saúl Sánchez – who the Obama administration threatened with deportation after 49 years in the United States – told Miami’s El Nuevo Herald that the individuals he was advocating for were stuck in airport interrogation rooms, their families panicked and receiving few updates.
“These Cuban travelers have tourism visas. They are being detained or deported,” Sánchez said on January 15. “Those being detained within the airport include people of advanced age, including one blind man, many of them ill.” He added that many elderly Cubans with whom he spoke after being released from interrogation were threatened with being detained in an immigration center, leaving them thinking, “if you’re going to throw me in jail just send me back.”
Relatives of those detained told their stories to the media. 67-year-old Justina Barroso Rodríguez, who suffers from hypertension, was placed in a jail awaiting deportation upon arriving in the United States on January 13. Her son, Danilo Alemán, told the Diario Las Americas that he had received little information on the matter, only that the repeal of “wet foot/dry foot” led to her detention.
“I would like to know, how would President Obama feel if it was his mother in the conditions my mother is currently in?” Alemán asked.
A 73-year-old Cuban woman who was fortunate enough to be released told Miami’s América TeVe that she was kept in isolation an entire day without food. She refused to give the network her name and said she did not know when she had been initially detained, though she estimated it had occurred around 10AM local time and she had been released long after the sun had set. She possessed a legal visa, and said her crime was to mention the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act to an immigration official.
Those flying into Miami were among the luckiest Cubans following President Obama’s directive, even as their legal U.S. visas were not enough to prevent them from being detained. Cubans who had begun their journey to the United States through Central America and Mexico – who would have been able to enter the United States and legally stay there before President Obama’s last week in office, are now stranded throughout the region, held in dilapidated detention centers and threatened with deportation back into a communist autocracy.
In Panama, 18 Cuban refugees declared themselves on hunger strike this week, protesting the government’s refusal to grant them access to an attorney and forcing them into conditions with little food or basic hygienic necessities. The protest triggered another hunger strike at a detention center in Panama by anti-communist activists who fled Cuba to avoid becoming prisoners of conscience. “We are taking this measure for our freedom, because we cannot return to Cuba,” one of the individuals said in a statement.
The protesters alleged that Panamanian authorities had confiscated their passports and abandoned many in the dense forestry near the Colombian border. “They are putting us on trucks and letting us loose in the middle of the jungle,” one protester said, while another noted that those abandoned in such a way are left “without food, without water, they do not care if we are sick or injured.”
In Mexico, a country with a record of treating migrants inhumanely, Cubans seeking to cross the northern border into the United States are also stranded. “Many of us will die if we were to go to Cuba,” refugee Rodolfo Muñoz told local outlet KVUE this week. He and his wife, like many Cubans, are stranded in Nuevo Laredo, where the U.S. government has refused to let them pass. U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined an interview on the subject with the broadcast station. In a widely distributed statement, the agency said that Cubans have the option of filing a petition the enter the country based on a political asylum claim, but they risk months in a “detention facility” if they express their fear of political persecution to authorities.
Mexico has already begun to deport dozens of refugees back to Cuba, where the government executes thousands of politically-motivated arrests annually. Mexican authorities deported 70 Cuban refugees last Wednesday, with many more expected to be repatriated soon.
This appears to have been the Obama administration’s intended result. “We will have to get involved with the Central American and Mexican governments to promote the idea of a secure, orderly, legal migration or restricting or repatriating irregular immigrants,” an unnamed State Department official told El Nuevo Herald in July 2016, referring to the refugees as “immigrants.”
Some of those stranded in Mexico and Central America have protested that the treatment of Cubans under the Obama administration, which differed significantly from the welcoming attitude the administration had towards other Latin American immigrants, was a result of Cuban-Americans’ embrace of conservative values. A result of a combination of factors – from the massacre of Cuban patriots under Democrat John F. Kennedy at Bay of Pigs to the Democratic-majority Congressional Black Caucus’ embrace of Fidel Castro – Cuban-American voters are largely conservative on foreign policy issues and lean Republican. The final tally of November election results showed Cubans more likely to support Republican candidate Donald Trump than even non-Hispanic white Americans. These facts were not lost on some refugees traveling north.
“Obama, because he is leaving, suddenly takes up the idea of repealing a law that has been enforced for many years and has favored many Cubans. I think he got angry with the Cubans,” Cuban refugee Jose Enrique Manresa said, shortly after President Obama’s move prevented him from entering the country. “It is a reprisal.”
Adding insult to injury, the Obama administration presided over an unprecedented surge in recent years in Cuban refugee flows into the United States, a direct result of his policy of appeasement towards the Castro regime. In his last days in office, President Obama also signed an agreement emboldening the Cuban Coast Guard to conduct joint “rescue” operations in international waters, despite Havana’s multiple mass murders of refugees and Cuban-American activists at sea.
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