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Central America: Cuban migrants stuck in limbo


Thousands of Cubans seeking to reach the United States through Ecuador, Colombia and Central America and Mexico have been stranded in recent weeks as countries close their borders and refuse to let them through.  

On 15 November 2015 Nicaragua shut its border with Costa Rica, using soldiers to push the Cubans who had just been allowed through Costa Rica back across the frontier.

A few days earlier Costa Rica had closed its border with Panama for similar reasons. Although this closure lasted only a few days, Nicaragua continues to refuse to re-open its border to the Cubans, leaving an estimated 5000 people stranded on the Costa Rican side.Cuban migrants at Costa Rican border

The Costa Rican government has provided food and shelter for them near the border with Nicaragua. President Guillermo Solís has also said his government will not force them to return to Cuba.

Colombia and Panama have faced similar tensions, as several thousand more Cubans have attempted to cross into Panamanian territory, particularly around the Caribbean port of Puerto Obaldía, in the indigenous Kuna Yala area.  

Preferential Treatment

At the end of November, the Central American foreign ministers met to discuss ways of unifying their policies and calling for an end to the dry foot/ wet foot legislation in the United States.

This legislation allows Cubans who set foot on US territory to remain in the country, whereas anyone not reaching the United States is to be sent back to Cuba.

The huge increase in Cubans leaving the island is reported to be due to fears that the relaxation of ties between the United States and Cuba may lead to Cuban immigrants losing their privileged status in their adopted country.

Since the 1960s Cuban immigrants have received preferential treatment in the United States, unlike that given to any other nationals.Central American ministers' meeting

At the height of the Cold War and following on from the 162 Cuban Missile Crisis, the US drew up the Cuban Adjust Act (CAA) in 1966.

Under the CAA Cubans arriving in the United States, legally or illegally, are eligible for permanent residence after one year and for citizenship after a further five years.

Initially it was argued that the law was needed to protect refugees from communist oppression, although with changing political climates there has been little alteration of the CAA.

The only substantial change to the Act came in the 1990s after a significant increase in the number of people attempting the dangerous boat crossing from Cuba to southern Florida resulted in an immigration crisis.

The 1994 and 1995 Cuban Migration Agreements aimed to discourage people from using this dangerous route by no longer allowing those intercepted at sea to stay in the US. The agreement meant that those who reached American shores (dry feet) were allowed to stay, whilst those stopped at sea (wet feet) would be sent back.

The Pew Research Centre, A Washington D.C. based think-tank on social issues, calculates that 27,296 Cubans entered the US in the first 9 months of the 2015 fiscal year, a 78% increase from the 15,341 who entered in 2014 and three and a half times as many as the 7,759 who arrived in 2011.

Of the 2015 arrivals two thirds avoided boats and crossed over the Mexican border into Texas, a 66% increase from the previous year.

As well as being prompted by the fears of policy change on the American side these people are being helped by policy changes on the Cuban side. In 2013 Cuba announced that its citizens would no longer need exit permits to leave the island and started issuing passports with far greater ease. In 2014 alone 40,000 were granted tourist visas to the US.

Doctors to stay in Cuba

In another development, early in December 2015 the Cuban government announced measures restricting travel abroad for its medical professionals, in what has been seen as the first restraint on freedom of movement for Cubans brought in by the 2013 migration reform.

As reported in the Mexican press, the Cuban government admitted that the loss of so many medical professioCosta Rican border with Nicaraguanals had “seriously” affected the country’s free medical services.

Some 25,000 Cuban doctors and other health specialists (out of an estimated total of 85,000) are currently employed outside the island. By charging for their services, the government receives revenues of some US$ 10 billion annually.

According to the official Cuban publication Granma, these restrictions are aimed at combatting the ‘selective and politicised’ migratory policies of the United States, as well as the ‘unplanned hiring’ of Cuban doctors by other countries in the region.

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